Since my first foray into the world of gardening, the veggies I’ve grown have always been in a community of friends: at school gardens, community gardens, and now on an urban farm. It’s fun and comforting to share the experience of growing food with companions and what better way to do this than in a setting that is designed to be public, open, and inclusive in nature.
This past weekend, on what finally felt like a warm Spring day in Halifax, I was reminded of both the excitement and nerves associated with planting a garden for the first time. Two new gardeners at Common Roots expressed these feelings (ones I’ve definitely felt before and will continue to feel): “we’re new, inexperienced, and ready to experiment!”
Lucky for us all, there are many resources to help the eager and experimental gardener get started. Some favourites for this region include the East Coast Gardener by Marjorie Willison, The Year Round Veggie Gardener by Niki Jabbour, and companion planting guidebooks from Louise Riotte.
These books are jam packed with helpful topics, such as info on plant needs, timing for planting seeds and transplants, succession planting and season extension. There is also this helpful one page guide for Nova Scotia that you can download here.
Personally, one of my favourite places to begin is with the companion planting technique. There is still more to know about why certain plants grow well together, repel insects, or even other plants. Based on documented observations and, in some cases, evidence from agricultural scientists, the technique invites gardeners to use the natural benefits of plants to protect and support each other…
“Plants that assist each other to grow well, plants that repel insects, even plants that repel other plants – all are of great practical use. They always have been, but we are just beginning to find out why. Delving deeply into this fascinating aspect of gardening can provide for us both pleasure and very useful information.”-Louise Riotte
The infamous example is of the “Three Sisters”: corn, pole beans, and squash.
How do these plants work well as a team? The corn, with its tall stalks, provides a structure for the pole beans to climb on. Corn is called a “heavy feeder”; it’s hungry for nutrients. It will use a lot of nitrogen while the beans will add nitrogen back to the soil. The squash will spread out along the soil and grow close to the ground acting as living mulch. This will reduce weed growth and create a microclimate, helping the soil maintain moisture. Together this trio supports a healthy and happy growing environment.
Some other examples of plants benefiting from one another:
- Some companion plants work well together because they make efficient use of both nutrients and space; think about combining sun-loving and shade tolerant plants, shallow and deep rooted crops (which make use of different layers of nutrients in the soil), and plants that are “heavy feeders” with those that are “lighter feeders” (and thus take less nutrients from the soil). For instance, radish and cucumbers are companions to each other. Radishes are light feeders, while cucumbers are hungry for nutrients; radishes are also observed to keep cucumber beetles away.
- Some plants repel unwanted insects in the garden. Nasturtiums, an edible and peppery tasting flower, are an example of this. They are observed to deter aphids, squash bugs and striped pumpkin beetles from eating other plants.
- And some plants not only grow well together but are compatible in flavours. I really like to sow a few dill seeds with rows of lettuce; these two will grow well together in small quantities. The dill is delicious in salads and before your lettuce reaches full maturity, you can harvest the baby leaves along with the dill – a pre-made salad mix & a treat straight from the garden.
Last week groups of kids in the Good Food First club got to put the companion planting technique into action! If you have kids, or coordinate youth garden programs, it’s a dynamic way to plan a garden landscape with youth. If there’s time, you can turn it into an experiment and put the theories to test by comparing plant growth with or without its companion. Overall, I think it encourages thoughtfulness when it comes to the needs of plants.
I started off by asking the group if they had heard of companion planting before, or “plants that were friends in the garden”. Someone raised their hand to ask, “ aren’t they plants that grow well together!?”
From there, using information cards and drawings, we worked together to decide on the different needs of plants and how these needs might be met when different plants are grown together.
The group divided into teams and worked together to design their gardens (we came up with some fun team names… Soup-A-Stars & Spinach Shredders were two of my favourites). One group was very artistic with designing their veggie landscape; they left space for rock pathways, fountains & statues (:
We then got our hands dirty and planted some seeds, with our garden plans and companion planting techniques to guide us!
Since the Fall of 2013, the Good Food First club has been meeting at four schools in HRM. The club is designed for grade 4 students and teaches them about the cycle of our food using a field to fork approach. With the help of awesome volunteer garden committees, interested citizens, teachers and parents, the program increases access to and knowledge of healthy and local food.
This is achieved through delivering fun, educational workshops in the garden & kitchen. More broadly, the aim of the project is to engage youth in thinking critically about where their food comes from.
If you’re interested in teaching youth about issues related to food security, or already doing it, let’s share our interests, stories and resources; please comment below! You can also contact Laura (Community Food Coordinator – Youth Focus) for more info on the Good Food First program (firstname.lastname@example.org).