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Companion Planting, Polycultures and Guilds

Companion planting, polycultures and guilds are integral parts of permaculture growing systems. (Gardening or farming in a way that is as abundant as possible while taking care of our planet and humanity.) These methods all share in common the idea that we should value and promote diversity as much as possible, and integrate rather than segregating when it comes to growing our food.

What is Companion Planting?

Companion planting is simply planting at least one plant as a 'companion' to another. The central idea in companion planting is that monocultures are a bad thing. A monoculture is a plantation of just one crop (as you would typically often see in large farm fields).

The problem with monocultures is that they are inherently unnatural. They take more resources (water, energy, etc.) to maintain, and can damage the soil ecosystem. And since they are more prone to problems with pests and diseases, they are harder (if not impossible) to manage organically.

By carefully choosing which plants to place next to each other, we can find solutions to many of the problems that are commonly found in mono-crop systems. We know surprisingly little about the many different ways that different plants interact. But we do know that plants can help each other in a range of surprising ways.

Companion Plants

The simplest form of companion planting involves individual plants to sow and grow alongside one of our main crops. Companion plants can be dotted throughout a bed, placed with the main plant in a pot or container, or planted around the edges of a growing area.

Companion planting is an inexact science. Many different plant combinations can bring beneficial effects. But many companion planting guides state categorically that two plants are excellent companions for one another when in fact, any evidence for this is merely anecdotal. It is important to remember that what works well in one situation, in one area, will not necessarily be as successful in another.

However, through trial and error, it is possible to choose companion plants that can increase your overall yield, protect the soil, and improve your growing systems.

So what makes an excellent companion plant? Well, to answer that question, it is necessary to think about what one plant can do for another. A companion plant may be a good companion because it requires roughly the same conditions. It may also, however, aid its companion by:

  1. Improving environmental conditions. (By providing shade, or ground cover, for example.)
  2. Dynamically accumulating nutrients. (Co-operating with bacteria in its root rhizomes to fix nitrogen - taking it from the air and making it available in the soil. Or gathering nutrients from deep below the soil surface that can be returned to the higher layers of the topsoil by chopping and dropping the plant.)
  3. Attracting beneficial insects. (Both for pollination and pest predation.)
  4. Repelling or distracting pest species. (Either by discouraging pests to come near, by making it harder for them to 'smell' and discover certain plants, or by acting as a sacrificial 'trap crop' which will draw pests to itself to keep them off more valuable plants.)

A selection of companion plants can be found here: Companion Plants

Inter-Cropping

Inter-cropping is a form of companion planting that is usually employed on a larger, farm-scale but which can also have application in a garden setting. As the name implies, it involves growing a second crop alongside a first one. Often (though not always), this word is used to describe companion planting when the two plants involved are sown in rows.

Inter-cropping, like smaller-scale companion planting, can have a wide range of benefits. By growing a secondary crop in a growing area, it is often possible to increase overall yield, even though the competition may reduce the yield of a primary crop.

Intercropping with certain plants can help in the various ways described above. But it can also allow gardeners and farmers to make the most of both space and time available. For example, by intercropping cabbages with lettuce, lettuce can be harvested before the cabbages grow and require space and nutrients.

Polycultures

Polycultures take the idea of companion planting one stage further. Rather than thinking in terms of a primary crop, grown with companion plants or a secondary crop, polyculture planting involves thinking about each growing area as a whole ecosystem. In a polyculture, several different plants are grown together. Each one is carefully selected to benefit the whole.

Polycultures are a fantastic solution for a wide range of situations. They can be implemented on many different scales, from a small garden bed or container right up to a complete, thriving food forest. Polycultures can include annual crops, be made up entirely of perennial plants, or have a combination of both.

Polycultures are based on the principle that the more beneficial interactions between elements in a system we can create, the more stable and resilient that the system will be. Polycultures are diverse and abundant planting schemes that mimic the polycultures found in nature all around us. They allow us to create beneficial combinations of plants to benefit ourselves, local wildlife, and the broader environment.

One example of a polyculture planting scheme is the 'three sisters' combination. In this combination, corn, beans and squash are grown together. The corn provides support for the beans; the beans fix nitrogen, the squash provides ground cover. But proponents of polyculture gardening might also include, for example, nasturtiums and various aromatic herbs to repel pests and attract beneficial insects.

For more information on Polycultures and Guilds see Aaron Lemire's PDF linked here.

Guilds

Guilds are a particular type of polyculture. This type of polyculture focusses on creating a helpful 'guild' of plants around a key, central tree or other plant. In a polyculture, there is not necessarily a hierarchy. But in a guild, plants are chosen to aid one focal species.

Guilds are the type of polyculture frequently seen around the fruit trees in a forest garden. Each of the plants in the layers of planting around each tree are carefully chosen to aid that central tree.

Guilds can also be created around key annual crops. A gardener might make a tomato plant the centre of a guild, and choose plants like alliums, basil, oregano, borage and marigolds, for example, as companions to aid the growth and maintain the health of that central plant.

There is a lot to learn about companion plants, polycultures and guilds. Much of it learned not through reading but observation and doing. So when planning your garden, don't isolate different types of plant – grow them together. Like us, plants to better together than they can do alone.

 

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