By Sarah Davin
When we adopt a plant, we tend to think of ourselves as its only provider, but in our local forests and meadows, plants grow together with others and form symbiotic bonds that help them all, in short—all for one and one for all.
That same relationship can be established in our own gardens with “companion planting,” which mimics the way plants grow in the wild, with trees, shrubs, and ferns forming close bonds with each other to form a community.
Joann Darling, apothecary garden manager and adjunct faculty member at the Vermont Center for Integrative Herbalism (VCIH) in Montpelier indicated that drawing from nature has its benefits in the garden. “We only need to venture into our mature forest to see how plant communities successfully relate to each other. A mixed deciduous forest offers the perfect place for spring flowers such as bloodroot and trillium to bloom, nourished by the sun and pollinated before trees leaf out. This rich loamy soil provides a medium that supports ferns and fungi, which in turn nourish the trees,” she said.
Incorporating some companion gardening into your garden can be easy and a good way to increase the yield of a limited amount of space by pairing combinations of plants that work well together. “In planning your gardens, look for combinations that share soil space such as a root crop with a plant with roots that live in the upper inches of the soil,” Darling elaborated, “Think about how they can complement each other and share resources rather than compete. In our apothecary garden at VCIH, I collect dandelions just before they flower. Their deep taproots pull up nutrients and break soil compaction. I plant self heal (an herbaceous plant) under the tall plants for shade and weed suppression. Think “mutually benefiting!”
While some styles of gardening focus on keeping bad bugs out, companion gardening puts the emphasis on inviting helpful insects in. In addition, encouraging good bugs also cuts down the need for harmful or dangerous pesticides. Charlotte Albers, owner of Paintbox Garden, a landscape consulting and design business in Shelburne, explained, “We always want insects, especially pollinators, so it’s important to avoid chemicals and garden organically. Some plants are especially attractive to bees in particular—borage, catnip, and agastache (hyssop) to name a few.” If you want to attract butterflies, add gayfeather to your garden, Albers instructs. It’s a North American native plant that grows well in Vermont, producing purple or white spikes that last a long time.
By cultivating a welcoming habitat for helpful pollinators and predators, the garden will be less likely to be overrun by other destructive species. “The best way to keep ahead of insect pests is to offer our beneficial insects plenty of food and shelter. Look to your meadows for help, our open meadows offer ideal protection for our beneficial insects such as the hoverfly. One of my favorite plants is tansy. It provides lots of nectar, has a large flat-topped head, and is very aromatic, making it a wonderful nursery plant for their young.”
Overall, Darling sees a rise in interest when it comes to gardening, a pastime that may not only help fill our stomachs but also align with our emotional needs and sensibilities. “I see a big move toward gardening in general. People are finding gardening offers a form of therapy and satisfaction. To me, companion planting means biodiversity, a word that is now part of our everyday conversations.”
To learn more about companion gardening, attend the class, “Companion Planting: Medicinals in the Vegetable Garden,” at the Vermont Center for Integrative Herbalism on June 8, 1–4 pm. Led by Juliette Abigail Carr, the class costs $30 for members and $35 dollars for non-members.