Walking along in the garden at Living Web Farms, Pat points out a Calendula and a lettuce plant hidden in an onion bed. He picks up a Mexican Bean Beetle, identifying it, adding that the reason single specimens of a bolting lettuce and Calendula plant are there, in the middle of the bed, is because of what’s called “farmscaping.” Farmscaping is an ecological approach to designing and managing farm landscapes to achieve a specific purpose. Increasing and managing biodiversity can be done to provide harborage and sustenance to beneficial organisms such as insects, birds and bats, for instance. When asked to share what he knows about “companion planting” and supporting beneficial insects, Pat responded that farmscaping is his preferred approach.
Companion planting is a topic that often comes up in gardening circles as a discussion of plants that generally benefit each other when planted close together as “companions.” A Native American favorite, called Three Sisters, locates corn, beans and squash together. The beans climb up the corn stalks, and the squash growing along the ground hold back weeds and preserve moisture for all three. Companion planting is also considered useful for insect pest control, however, wherein pest deterrent plants are partnered with food producing plants, usually in entire rows or patches. Marigolds are a mainstream favorite, with a scent that many gardeners believe “confuses the enemy.”
As a farmer with over 35 years of plant experience, Pat discusses a piece of his journey involving companion planting:
“Years ago a member of our gardening club in California, who was studying at the organic program at Santa Cruz, tried to prove the effectiveness of companion planting. She did replicated trials, carefully following proper procedures, only to prove nothing. This was despite the fact that she was a believer and expected to easily prove the efficacy of companion planting. She was a great grower, to say nothing of being very smart, and I trusted her research. Her results caused me to out-of-hand reject the potential of companion planting for the next 15 years or so.
It was only when I learned about plant exudates from Dr. Elaine Ingham that I believed there may be something to it. I then learned from Stephen Harrod Buhner, who wrote about Elderberry being referred to as elder because it was thought of as the elder of diverse plant communities. I surmised that this was because Elderberries had exceptionally potent root exudates. Whereupon, I opened up to the possibility that some plants’ mycorrhizal relationships might be stronger due to the nature of their exudates, and that this could have a positive impact on other fungal obligate plants. This gave me an explanation of how they may benefit from companion planting. It also provided me with a possible explanation for why my friend’s research was so fruitless. It is likely she made a new bed for her research. She meticulously followed Chadwick’s style of bio-intensive growing. Particularly pertinent to this style is the double digging, which likely meant she inadvertently wiped out most of the fungi. This is just speculation on my part.”
So, while Pat sees merit in companion planting, his experience falls largely to farmscaping, drawing beneficials in rather than attempting to deter pests:
“I’m happy to provide a list of plants that nurture growing communities and that are well-balanced as far as the ratios of herbivores and predators are concerned. I would encourage growers to remember, though, that all gardens/farms are dynamic. No static list can be effective. It is critical that growers pay careful attention to which plants are attractive to insects and to nurture maximum diversity. This indeed is how I and some of my fellow growers have come to believe that marigolds are pretty much useless, not just somewhat less effective. If you pay attention to them they don’t attract much insect life, and when I checked into why people think they’re good for repelling insects, I found that the concept is an odor that masks the presence of the target crop. I have never found this to be the case. Marigolds may mask the presence of the target plant from pests that are not hungry, but there are not many such pests out there that aren’t hungry. From what I can tell, the hungry pests always make it past the smell of marigolds.
The list that follows will emphasize families of plants. Some of the more spectacular members of each family will be mentioned but here is where observation is critical. Observe where and when beneficial predators help your situation. The best ones in my situation may not be the best in other situations.”
Early spring – late spring – early summer:
- Trees, including but not limited to Willows and Tulip Poplars. Shrubs: Fothergilla stands out
- Composites include Calendula and Bachelor’s Buttons, for the early-season.
- All Apiaceae/carrot family. Cilantro is especially good because it goes to seed quickly. Parsnips are spectacular when in bloom because of their size.
- All Alliums. Chives are good because they go to seed early in the season. Allowing an onion or a leek here and there to go seed can do wonders for diversity.
- The mint family Lamiaceae. Of course this includes all the mints, but even better are the herbs such as Marjoram, Thyme, Oregano etc.
- Clovers and some other legumes (not particularly beans and peas)
- The Boraginaceae including Comfrey, Borage and Phacelia tanacetifolia aka Tansy Leaf Phacelia.
- The Brassicas, Radishes and Mustards are particularly effective in the springtime.
- Finally, some plants contribute also or indeed sometimes only by way of their extra floral nectaries. Plants that with extra strong floral nectary activity (they provide nectar for beneficial insects) in the spring season are Willows, Elderberries, Bachelor‘s Buttons and the vetches including Fava Beans.
Late spring and early summer:
- There are many trees and shrubs that contribute to diversity at this time of year. Of note are Bottlebrush Chestnut and Russian Olive, though the olive is pretty invasive and despised by many native plant folks).
- Apiaceae or carrot family- all of them. But the ones that are particularly likely to be blooming at this time include Lovage and Parsley, also of course Queen Anne’s Lace.
- Composites: Sunflowers and Yarrow are particularly great ones, but also Zinnias Cosmos, Feverfew, Chamomile. Golden Marguerite, a perennial groundcover that blooms over an extended time. Sunflowers also have extra floral nectaries! Finally, the Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum) is a very large perennial composite which later in the season will flower profusely and be very attractive to many beneficials. Its special before it even flowers, however, because it gathers water from dew and rains into small cavities at the base of the leaf next to the stem. This water cup, as it were, provides water for the smaller, weaker flying beneficials that won’t thrive without easy access to water.
- With the mint family as with many flowering plants the more frequently you cut the flowers back more flowerings you can get from them over the seasons.
- As far as the Fabaceae/bean pea family go cowpeas is one of the best for this season. But it is their extra floral nectaries rather than the flowers that are most important.
- Sweet potatoes and other Convolvulaceae such as air potato are important sources of extra floral nectar.
- Polygonaceae, especially buckwheat (this can be dead headed with a weedeater and kept blooming till frost!), but also rhubarb when in flower (though that’s not what we want to happen!) And the smart weeds such as Vietnamese Cilantro.
- Brassicas such as broccoli gone to seed. (Although you might not want to have Brassica in your garden as it warms up, because it attracts Harlequin Bugs).
- Alliums such as Evergreen Hardy bunching onion and leeks and other onions allowed to go to seed. Also, chives will keep going to seed throughout the year. Cut them back when in bloom and try and stop them from quickly once again going to seed!
Late-summer to fall:
- Many of the plants described previously will still be blooming during this time. But special Composites that are particularly profuse this time of year include:
- Goldenrod and the Eupatoriums such as Boneset and Joe Pye Weed
- Asters, but be aware that they are major repository the phytoplasma that causes the disease “Aster Yellows, as also may be Goldenrod, but less reliably so.
- Jerusalem artichokes have incredible insect activity when in bloom and if several varieties are planted, the bloom season can last 4-5 weeks.
- Pacifica chrysanthemum, though it can be hard to find, blooms very late and gives a great final feed to help all of our friends build up enough fat to make it through the winter. NOTE: If you do find any Pacifica chrysanthemum, let us know!
- From mid-summer, the Malvaceae for extra floral nectaries, particularly Kenaf.
“May no one ever attempt a definitive list! Paying attention to the plants that are abuzz with beneficial insect life is what it’s all about. Learn new plants every year. Observation is key. The great news is we never have to figure out what all those buzzing insects already know. If we just provide the harborage, they figure the rest out amongst themselves!”
Pat also shared some insight on Aphids:
“There are plants that fairly reliably become infested with aphids, which do not affect our crops. Examples of this are plants such as Goldenrod and the Goldenrod aphid, and Milkweed and the Milkweed aphid. These plants regularly have very large buildups of Aphids and are excellent sources of food for the full spectrum of predatory insects. They are functioning as a protein source for the beneficial insects that protect our crops.”
As we build our knowledge about how to farm with nature, not against her, we can think about the approaches we want to try in our own gardens. Please reply in the comments with other ideas, suggestions, and discussion.
Patryk Battle, is the Director of Living Web Farms. Patryk has worked for 40 years in all aspects of our food system to create socially and environmentally just and regenerative systems. He loves to cook and eat but often misses lunch! He is considered an expert on organic pest solutions. livingwebfarms.org
Contributing Editor: Jessica Edmundson, Intern, Living Web Farms
Organic Growers School is a non-profit organization providing organic education since 1993. Our mission is to inspire, educate, and support people in our region to farm, garden, and live organically.