I kicked off my feminist-hippy period as a teenager, leaving school at 16 (University Entrance successfully passed – whew!) to move up to the Whanganui River with my longtime boyfriend and fellow idealist, Murray, and his friend, Thom. We lived in the then-decrepit meeting house on the old marae at Ranana, down on the banks of the Whanganui River. There was no electricity or running water, and all our meals (as well as all my preserving and baking) were cooked over a big open fire.
Out on the river flat, we three constructed a huge vegetable garden – about half a hectare – of all-organic produce, which fed not just ourselves, but much of the local community around us. I still have some of my library of books from that era of my life: Grow It! The Beginner's Complete In-Harmony-With-Nature Small Farm Guide, my dad’s New Zealand Garden Dictionary and a little hardcover book on companion plants. These books remain a regular reference for my gardening all these years down the track.
I love the way that nature has its own rules about which plants like being next to each other and which don’t. Some plant combinations seem obvious because the two harvests make such happy companions on the plate – tomatoes and basil, beans and corn, beans and potatoes, and leeks, carrots and celery. But then you find that beans don’t like being next to tomatoes. In fact, neither do most members of the cabbage family. Tomatoes hate fennel, but like asparagus (I love asparagus and fennel, so go figure), while potatoes are stunted by sunflowers, pumpkins and cucumbers. Peas don’t respond to onions and garlic; beetroot doesn’t like beans.
The list of likes and dislikes is actually quite vast. Companion planting charts abound on the web, which makes it easy to ensure your plantings will thrive and not sulk. I often use Stumble Upon to find new, interesting garden sites. One of the recent finds I have enjoyed is Cove Rock Farm’s Herbal Planting Companion.
My little book, Companion Plants, was first published in 1966 as an A–Z of all things companionable. It is full of fascinating information about companion planting. Some of it I am not quite convinced about – apparently surrounding a vegetable garden with a wall of onions will protect it from rabbits. I have to say that given the rapacious appetites and incredibly prolific breeding habits of the rabbits down in Central Otago, I’m not game enough to put that theory to the test. Ted’s shotgun seems a much more reliable control (the results of which also find their way, very tastily, to the dinner table).
This year I am, however, going to try out one of Companion Plants’ recommendations for the stinging nettle that grows rampantly through my vege garden. I’m not keen on nettles growing anywhere I might sting myself inadvertently, but they are recommended to promote vitality in any plant they grow next to, especially tomatoes. However, these benefits can be conferred by a fermented extract instead. This is also recommended as deterrent for the black flies that are shortly going to cause real grief to my broad beans.
This fermented extract is as simple as picking nettles (gloves needed) and putting them in a container, then covering with water and leaving them to ferment outside for three weeks. Once three weeks has passed, the nettles will have fully broken down and your extract is ready to be sprayed onto plants – some for the tomatoes and some for the broad beans. What a useful weed!
One of the most useful areas of companion planting is the way some plants work to keep certain insects at bay. In Borneo, I was amazed to see huge hedges of lemongrass planted all around the longhouses – lemongrass is the source of citronella, a major mosquito repellent.
You will find in companion planting that either marigolds or nasturtiums will deter aphids. Onions will keep carrot fly at bay. The cabbage butterfly doesn’t like rosemary, sage, mint or thyme, and cut-leaf worms don’t like oak-leaf mulch. Alyssum attracts the hoover flies that eat aphids, and leaving big piles of leaf-mould untouched in parts of your garden attract ladybugs – surely one of the most useful garden insects.
For lots more gardening tips and advice, see my website. Happy planting!