Plants That Work Together –
If you’re planning to grow plants as food or medicine, your first instinct may be to group your growing areas by species. After all, this is how most modern farming is done – big fields of a single crop, known as a monoculture. The suburban lawn is another good example of monoculture, and quite instructive as to the continual effort required to resist nature’s tendency to diversification.
Natural monoculture is unknown. The Amazon rainforest ecosystem, for example, relies on such a variety of species that many are still unclassified. Even natural grasslands, which look very uniform, have many complementary plants working below the surface to keep the grass healthy. This is because any healthy ecosystem is made up of a variety of species, whose interaction is a lot more than the sum of its parts.
We can leverage this natural synergy in our home gardens by growing plants together in mutually beneficial combination. One simple yet effective combination, known as ‘the three sisters,’ was discovered by Native Americans. The three plants are corn, squash, and beans.
Here’s how it works: The corn grows tall and straight, its stems forming natural stakes for the beans to twine around. The beans, happy in the sun, act as nitrogen-fixers, capturing nitrogen from the atmosphere and releasing it into the soil to fertilise the roots of its ‘sisters.’ The beans also serve as scaffolding to the corn stalks, increasing their resistance to being blown over by strong winds.
The squash, growing low to the ground without competition from the twining beans, spreads out to capture any sunlight filtering through the corn and beans. The leaves of the squash then fully shade the common growing area from sunlight, ensuring the area retains a lot more moisture for the corn and beans to drink up.
This system works very well. It will save fertiliser you’d otherwise use for your corn and squash, it will save watering you’d otherwise have to do more frequently, and it won’t require planting any stakes. The close proximity of these plants will also be a far more efficient use of space. And the harvest will provide good, balanced nutrition: lots of carbs from the corn, lots of protein in the beans, and vitamins and oils from squash.
You’ll need to plant the three sisters in full sunlight and, if the soil is poor, provide a lot of compost or fertiliser to jumpstart the growth cycle (the beans will take about a year to start producing enough nitrogen to properly feed the corn). The sisters are best planted in a grid pattern, as originally designed by Native Americans.
If you have more space and patience, and you wish to grow a greater variety of crops, another great complementary method is a food forest. As the name implies, this method employs edible plants to emulate the synergies of the various layers of a forest. The top level will be the canopy of fruit and nut trees. Next come smaller fruit trees, and then bushes – you can grow a lot of delicious berries here. Next is the herbaceous layer of leafy vegetables of herbs mostly. Getting down even further, starchy root vegetables like potatoes and carrots are grown. On ground level, we find cover crops like strawberries. Finally, a vining layer grows back up the trees and bushes to the light of the canopy.
As you can imagine, a food forest is a far cry from the neat and orderly rows of traditional vegetable gardens. It is rather a wild profusion of vegetation, but in its seeming chaos can be found great efficiency and harmony. The main advantages of this method are variety, low maintenance, and sustainability. So, if you have the time and space to dedicate to a food forest, you’ll be amply rewarded with an abundant yield of many delicious plants. To research the subject further, investigate ‘permaculture.’