Companion planting in gardening and agriculture is the planting of different crops in proximity for any of a number of different reasons, including pest control, pollination, providing habitat for beneficial insects, maximizing use of space, and to otherwise increase crop productivity. Companion planting is a form of polyculture.
Companion planting is used by farmers and gardeners in both industrialized and developing countries for many reasons. Many of the modern principles of companion planting were present many centuries ago in cottage gardens in England and forest gardens in Asia, and thousands of years ago in Mesoamerica.
In China, mosquito ferns (Azolla spp.) have been used for at least a thousand years as companion plants for rice crops. They host a cyanobacterium that fixes nitrogen from the atmosphere, and they block light from plants that would compete with the rice.
Companion planting was practiced in various forms by the indigenous peoples of the Americas prior to the arrival of Europeans. These peoples domesticated squash 8,000 to 10,000 years ago, then maize, then common beans, forming the Three Sisters agricultural technique. The cornstalk served as a trellis for the beans to climb, and the beans fixed nitrogen, benefitting the maize.
Companion planting was widely promoted in the 1970s as part of the organic gardening movement. It was encouraged for pragmatic reasons, such as natural trellising, but mainly with the idea that different species of plant may thrive more when close together. It is also a technique frequently used in permaculture, together with mulching, polyculture, and changing of crops.
Companion planting can operate through a variety of mechanisms, which may sometimes be combined.
Provision of nutrients
Trap cropping uses alternative plants to attract pests away from a main crop. For example, nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) is a food plant of some caterpillars which feed primarily on members of the cabbage family (brassicas); some gardeners claim that planting them around brassicas protects the food crops from damage, as eggs of the pests are preferentially laid on the nasturtium. However, while many trap crops have successfully diverted pests off of focal crops in small scale greenhouse, garden and field experiments, only a small portion of these plants have been shown to reduce pest damage at larger commercial scales.
Recent studies on host-plant finding have shown that flying pests are far less successful if their host-plants are surrounded by any other plant or even "decoy-plants" made of green plastic, cardboard, or any other green material.
The host-plant finding process occurs in phases:
- The first phase is stimulation by odours characteristic to the host-plant. This induces the insect to try to land on the plant it seeks. But insects avoid landing on brown (bare) soil. So if only the host-plant is present, the insects will quasi-systematically find it by simply landing on the only green thing around. This is called (from the point of view of the insect) "appropriate landing". When it does an "inappropriate landing", it flies off to any other nearby patch of green. It eventually leaves the area if there are too many 'inappropriate' landings.
- The second phase of host-plant finding is for the insect to make short flights from leaf to leaf to assess the plant's overall suitability. The number of leaf-to-leaf flights varies according to the insect species and to the host-plant stimulus received from each leaf. The insect must accumulate sufficient stimuli from the host-plant to lay eggs; so it must make a certain number of consecutive 'appropriate' landings. Hence if it makes an 'inappropriate landing', the assessment of that plant is negative, and the insect must start the process anew.
Thus it was shown that clover used as a ground cover had the same disruptive effect on eight pest species from four different insect orders. An experiment showed that 36% of cabbage root flies laid eggs beside cabbages growing in bare soil (which resulted in no crop), compared to only 7% beside cabbages growing in clover (which allowed a good crop). Simple decoys made of green cardboard also disrupted appropriate landings just as well as did the live ground cover.
Some companion plants help prevent pest insects or pathogenic fungi from damaging the crop, through chemical means. For example, the smell of the foliage of marigolds is claimed to deter aphids from feeding on neighbouring plants. A 2005 study found that oil volatiles extracted from Mexican marigold by vacuum distillation reduced the reproduction of three aphid species (pea aphid, green peach aphid and glasshouse and potato aphid) by up to 100% after 5 days from exposure.
Companion plants that produce copious nectar or pollen in a vegetable garden (insectary plants) may help encourage higher populations of beneficial insects that control pests, as some beneficial predatory insects only consume pests in their larval form and are nectar or pollen feeders in their adult form. For instance, marigolds with simple flowers attract nectar-feeding adult hoverflies, the larvae of which are predators of aphids.
Some crops are grown under the protective shelter of different kinds of plant, whether as wind breaks or for shade. For example, shade-grown coffee, especially Coffea arabica, has traditionally been grown in light shade created by scattered trees with a thin canopy, allowing light through to the coffee bushes but protecting them from overheating. Suitable Asian trees include Erythrina subumbrans (tton tong or dadap), Gliricidia sepium (khae falang), Cassia siamea (khi lek), Melia azedarach (khao dao sang), and Paulownia tomentosa, a useful timber tree.
Systems in use or being trialled include:
Square foot gardening attempts to protect plants from many normal gardening problems, such as weed infestation, by packing them as closely together as possible, which is facilitated by using companion plants, which can be closer together than normal.
- Ecological facilitation
- Vegan organic gardening
- Three Sisters (agriculture)
- List of companion plants
- List of beneficial weeds
- List of pest-repelling plants
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