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Companion Planting – Folk Wisdom or Science?

Companion Planting Chart

When I first learned about companion planting I thought it was a bit of simple folk wisdom. Plant your peas and carrots together, but keep them away from dill. Plant marigolds near the tomatoes, and soybeans with anything. This information, which is available in lists in books and on the Internet, has been my guide every spring when I rotate the vegetables around in my garden. Of course, in my small rotating vegetable garden I am also practicing the most basic element of companion planting which is polycropping, not having so many of one type of plant close together, making it easy for pests to find them, or for disease to spread.

However, over the years I have come to understand that companion plants help each other in a number of ways, starting with providing nitrogen or other chemicals to the soil that one way or another benefit another plant. For example, the carrot growing underground exudes nutrients into the soil, as do other roots, but the carrot’s exudations particularly benefit the growth of peas. This was something I generally understood to be the basis of companion planting.

I knew the ancient three sisters planting of corn, beans and squash was another example of companion planting, but I didn’t take in that the three sister system expresses three kinds of companionate activity. We all know that the beans help supply nitrogen to the corn and squash. In addition, the corn is providing support for the beans in a companionable way, and the squash is keeping down weed growth while helping conserve water.

Clearly there are a variety of ways that plants help each other. Some companions help by making it difficult for pests to locate the target, like your cabbage. Pests locate their target by chemical/fragrance cues, or visually. Polycropping makes it difficult to locate a target visually. Planting flowers like marigolds and nasturtiums, and herbs or aromatic plants like those in the onion family repel pests by filling the air with odors unpleasant to the pest. This aspect of companion planting makes a good case for keeping a number of herbs like borage, basil, and hyssop in the vegetable garden, in addition to in a pretty herb garden close to the house where they are handy to the kitchen.

Trap or catch cropping is another aspect of companion planting. Flea beetles can be a problem for tomatoes and eggplant, as well as for the cabbage family. As much as flea beetles like these crops they like mustard even more. Once you get the flea beetles munching away on the mustard which is planted a distance away from the targets, the trick is to then destroy the mustard and the beetles together. The books haven’t explained to me exactly how to do this without sending the flea beetles fleeing, but I am continuing my researches.

You can also plant flowers in the vegetable garden that will attract beneficial insects like ladybugs, lacewings and beneficial wasps. Some of the best annuals are bachelor buttons, sweet alyssum, lobelia, scabiosa, and dahlias.

Yet another way of using companion plants is by using accumulator plants like comfrey, coltsfoot, yarrow (achillea), and even dandelions as part of your fertilization scheme. Accumulator plants are those whose roots collect various nutrients in the soil and carry those nutrients into the plant’s foliage. Achillea or yarrow is a common, easy care flower in the perennial garden. It also accumulates notable amounts of nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P), and potassium (K) in its foliage. Yarrow is a little living sack of NPK fertilizer, with the three major nutrients required for plant growth. It is not as strong as 5-10-5 fertilizer, but still. Make sure you put these plants in your compost pile at the end of the season, or dry them, crush the foliage and then mix that material into the soil.

Dandelions also have that NPK accumulation as well as amounts of trace elements like calcium, magnesium, iron, copper and silicon. Comfrey accumulates nitrogen and potassium, magnesium, iron, calcium and boron. Although fertile soil contains minute amounts of trace elements they are all vital to healthy plant development.

While I have been concentrating on those plants that benefit each other, one way or another, the companion planting system also notes that certain plants have enemies. Onions are good companions for beets, strawberries, tomatoes, members of the cabbage family and lettuce, but should be kept away from peas and beans.

According to Louise Riotte, author of the classic Carrots Love Tomatoes, fennel should not be planted near almost anything. On the other hand, if it is planted near cilantro, the fennel will not set seed.

There are many mysteries in the garden. Some of those mysteries are becoming understood as research continues. Experiments are difficult in the field because there are so many variables including what effect the wind is having on the garden on any given day.

I do rotate my crops and I do pay attention to plant companions and enemies, but I also know that one of the surest ways to have healthy strong plants is to have healthy soil rich in organic matter. Feeding the soil with compost and organic fertilizers like greensand, and rock phosphate if it is needed is the most dependable way of insuring a healthy garden.###

Between the Rows   March 22, 2014

Seeds and Seed Cases on Wordless Wednesday

Coriander

Seeds and seed cases make something new to see in the garden. Coriander is the little round seeds left on the cilantro plants. That means cilantro/coriander is both an herb and a spice.

Cotoneaster berries

Cotoneaster (Co-tone – e – aster) berries are brighter than coriander.

Rose Hips

These rose hips are not the kind for rose hip jelly.

Columbine seed case

The tiny black seeds inside the petit columbine seed case will scatter themselves. More plants in the spring.

 

Milkweed seeds – three stages

This milkweed stem shows the seed pods three stages – closed, open with the seeds still tightly packed, and finally with with the seeds preparing to sail on their fluffy tails. In my efforts to welcome back monarch butterflies. I rarely weed out milkweed any more.

For more Wordlessness this Wednesday click here.

Walk on the Wildside with Sue Bridge

Wildside Cottage

How would you plan your retirement if you had already received a degree from Wellesley College, earned a further degree in Russian and Middle Eastern Studies, hitchhiked to Morocco, lived in Paris, worked for the United Nations, as well as in the cable TV world, and for the Christian Science Monitor newspaper?

Sue Bridge, with the urging of a Northampton friend, bought eight acres of hilly land in Conway. For the past seven years her retirement project has been to create a sustainable, self-sufficient home and landscape where she can live off the grid. The house she designed is energy efficient, well insulated with electricity and hot water provided by solar panels. It is also beautiful, inside and out. The sunny main living space is comprised of a kitchen, dining and living areas. French doors form the south wall of the living area which opens out onto a stone terrace with low stone walls overlooking terraced gardens and across to the hills beyond. The house is small but there is no sense of being cramped, only of spacious comfort.

For help in creating a sustainable landscape she turned to Jono Neiger of the Regenerative Design Group. Neiger and his group are proponents of permaculture systems. Bridge confesses she didn’t really understand what that meant when she began. Neiger came several times to visit; he’d walk around, make notes and walk around some more. Finally, after he had walked the land for several months and not a single spade of soil had been moved, she asked him if his crews were very busy. Did he have any idea when work would begin?

Then Neiger had to explain that work was well-begun. He had been building a scientific portrait of the land, how the sun, wind and water moved across the hill, and over the season.

It was not until Neiger invited Bridge to his own garden that she began to understand what permaculture is. On the appointed day she arrived at his house and garden before he did and was very confused. “Where’s the garden,” she asked when he drove up. The truth is that permaculture gardens do not look like the beautifully arranged flower gardens or orderly vegetable gardens that most of us are familiar with.

I was in the same position she had been with Neiger. I could see why she had named her place Wildside. I needed to have the garden explained. “This is not traditional farmland, but it is incredibly productive,” she said as we walked across the broad terraces  carved into the hillside. “Terraces are a permaculture trademark.”

The terraces help keep the soil from eroding, even in severe storms. “We had 17 inches of rain during Irene, but there was no erosion,” Bridge said.

To the east the living room terrace is an herb garden. One of Bridge’s specialties is five-herb tea. The terraces on the south hillside are first planted to vegetables that are harvested during the summer, the next terrace on the slope is for perennial vegetables like sea kale and Jerusalem artichokes, and the third is for pollinators, bee balm, garlic chives and other plants that attract pollinators.

Productive sweet potato vines in greenhouse

At the bottom of the slope is a small greenhouse where she grows sweet potatoes in the ground, harvesting more than 100 pounds of nutritious sweet potatoes, as well as ginger, and turmeric plants good for the digestion, and pain relief. The garden outside the greenhouse is mostly storage vegetables, beets, carrots, potatoes and squash. Of course, if you raise enough of this kind of vegetable you need a root cellar and Bridge has built a small one behind her house. Other edible crops are canned or dried.

Wildside rice

We walked past the path to the orchard with apple, peach, pear and plum trees and to the rice paddy in the Wet Meadow. It took heavy digging, but Bridge is growing rice!

The land rises slightly beyond the Wet Meadow. We walked through a stand of overgrown Christmas trees, planted by the former owners, then came into a sunny meadow where nut trees, including chestnut have been planted. The surrounding evergreens help protect them from high winter winds.

Mountain mint with Monarch butterfly

Bridge said she learned that eastern slopes are ideal for fruit trees and berries. On her eastern slope she grows persimmons, pawpaws, quince, Asian pears, shadbush, blueberries, elderberries, and black chokeberries. http://www.millernurseries.com/ sell chokeberriess. Chokeberries are not very sweet, but they are extremely nutritious and do make good jelly. Bridge has also tucked mountain mint and other plants for pollinators everywhere on this east slope.

I was fascinated by the “fertility bed” a long row of comfrey, bush clover and switch grass which Bridge cuts down twice a year and uses as mulch or compost.

Bridge has come to love Conway where she has found a great community with lots of grass roots action. “This is a friendly environment for me,” she said.

A broad community has found Sue Bridge to be very friendly, and inspirational. Her gardens have become a model of sustainable food production. Students from Wellesley and Smith Colleges, the Conway School of Landscape Design, Greenfield Community College and others come to see what she is doing and learn about the science behind what she is doing.

When I asked if she had intended to launch such an educational project in her retirement she said no. “I did not intend, but I do not resist.”    

Between the Rows   August 24, 2013

Preserving Cilantro – Herb of the Day

 

Cilantro in flower

Cilantro is an herb with two names, cilantro and coriander. It is called cilantro in its leafy and flowering form, but the seeds are called coriander, hence it is known as both an herb  and a spice. Cilantro has become a very popular herb that is called for in many, South American, Middle-Eastern and Indonesian dishes. In fact, it can turn up in almost any recipe. It has a complex flavor, and I tend to cut it with flat leaf and parsley in  some recipes. Still, it adds depth of flavor and is considered a health-giving plant.

Planting Cilantro

Like other herbs, cilantro is easy to grow. Sun and a  good, well draining soil, of course. The main requirement is cool weather. Cilantro bolts quickly when temperatures go above 75 degrees for a few days. It can be seeded early in the spring and again in late summer and fall. In fact, the early spring cilantro will have already bolted and formed seed by late summer. It will very likely have self-seeded so that new cilantro shoots are already sprouting. I have also  found cilantro sprouting here and there in the garden the following spring.

Preserving Cilantro

Cilantro does not retain much flavor when it is dried. I treat cilantro the same way I do basil. I blend up the flavorful foliage in a blender or food processor with some olive oil. Then I put a tablespoonful in a little plastic sandwich bag and twist it shut. I put several sandwich bags, each with its own tablespoon full of cilantro and oil in a larger freezer bag. Some cooks prefer to store their cilantro oil in an ice cube tray to create a measured amount.

Preserving Coriander

Coriander first appears on the bolted plant as shiny little green seeds. These can be added to salads or fish  for a delightful burst of flavor. As the coriander seeds dry to a brown shade the flavor mellows. Before they are so dry they fall off the plant, put the seed heads in a paper bag and let them dry fully. Then bottle them in an air tight glass jar. One way or another you will have a flavorful harvest to give you a tropical zest to the grayest January day.

Joe Pye Weed for the Butterflies

Joe Pye Weed

Joe Pye Weed, Eupatorium, is a native plant whose range extends from Texas to Maine. It can be used in perennial flower beds, or allowed to flourish on the roadside or in fields. I planted a small variety in my garden this spring, but I love the 6 foot tall ‘weeds’ that grow in the fields.

Joe Pye Weed

I am not successful of getting  photographs of butterflies, but butterflies find lots of nectar in the tiny blossoms of the Joe Pye Weed flower head, which can be very broad. It is easy to grow in sun or very light shade, in soil moist or dry. While it is a good nectar plant for butterflies, it does not support caterpillars.  Host plants for caterpillars include milkweed, dill, parsley, cabbage, sunflowers and many others. For a more complete list click here.

This year in my own garden I found that garlic chives are a great nectar plant. Next year I am going to plant mountain mint which also attracts many butterflies and other pollinators.

Mountain Mint for Pollinators and for Tea

Mountain Mint

Mountain mint was one of the fascinating new plants I saw yesterday when I visited the beautiful and inspiring Wildside Cottage gardens in Conway.  According to an Illinois Wildflowers page    “Many insects are strongly attracted to the flowers,   including various bees, wasps, flies, small butterflies, and beetles. Typical   visitors from these groups include honeybees, Cuckoo bees, Halictid bees,   Sphecid wasps, Eumenine wasps, bee flies, Tachinid flies, Wedge-shaped beetles,   and Pearl Crescent butterflies. Most of these insects seek nectar. Mammalian   herbivores and many leaf-chewing insects apparently find the mint fragrance of   the leaves and stems repugnant, and rarely bother this plant.”

The mountain mint plants I saw at Wildside were covered with insect pollinators. I couldn’t begin to identify them all myself, but I could see there were lots of different types of insects, large and small.  I was also interested to find that as attractive as these mints are to pollinators, deer don’t like them very much. Maybe I should plant some next to my Asiatic lilies. Maybe that would save those beautiful blossoms for me.

Mountain mint’s Latin name is Pycnanthemum ,  which is in  the mint family, and related to bee balm. No surprise then that it is good for tea, too.

Forbes Library Leads Off Garden Tour Season

Julie Abramson’s Garden

Julie Abramson’ s garden  is just one of six garden that will enchant garden lovers on the Forbes Library Garden Tour on Saturday, June 8, from 10 am til 3 pm. Julie’s is a collector’s garden that features some notable trees, clematis, and a colorful array of perennials and a rock garden. I was intrigued by the description of a rustic arbor covered with climbinbing hydrangea, PLUS two other arbors covered with roses, honeysuckle and clematis. Pure romance!

One garden combines formal and informal elements with wonderful and whimsical sculptures, and a tree house. Another garden is organically maintained with a focus on native plants. The terraced backyard features many beautiful trees and shrubs. One garden consists of six colorful garden rooms and a formal French vegetable garden. I cannot miss that. There is a lawn free garden! Perennials, shrubs, trees, vines and a grid of groundcovers, but no turf. The sixth garden surrounds a four unit condominium with a woodland in the front yard, and invidual private gardens. Clearly, there is  something for everyone. Gardens to inspire and teach.

The tickets are $15.00 ($20.00 on the day of the tour) and can be bought at Forbes Library, State St. Fruit in Northampton, Cooper’s Corner in Florence, Hadley Garden Center and Bay State Perennial Farm in Whately.  There are also tickets for wonderful raffle items for gardens on sale at the library; they include 2 yards of Bill Obear’s compost; gift items from Women’s Work; a garden consultation from Jim McSweeney, a planted container and gift certificate from Annie’s and gift certificates of $50.00 from Bay State Perennial Farm and $100.00 from Hadley Garden Center as well as other fun items.

What a wonderful way to start the garden tour season – and help the Forbes Library which is such an important library, serving many readers beyond the Northampton borders. Proceeds will benefit the Forbes Library

Bridge of Flowers Plant Sale – Saturday May 18

Plants ready for the sale

One thousdand perennials are ready for the Bridge of Flowers Plant Sale on Saturday, May 18. When the starting bell rings at 9 am (no sales before that hour) the buying begins. From this photo you might be able to pick out lady’s mantle, candelabra primroses, hostas, Solomon’s seal, ferns, and bleeding hearts, pink and white. I can tell you that there are also peonies, fairy bells (new to me) campanulas, yarrow, achillea, shasta daisies, and some shrubs including  butterfly bush, rose of sharon and forsythia. All at bargain prices.

Candelabra primroses

There are other primroses, too. pink and wine colors.  Most of the plants, including these primroses come off the Bridge. There will also be vendors selling tools, notecards, books – and wooden spoons. Unusual native flowers from Hillside Nursery will also be on sale – as usual. Annuals and geraniums will  also be available. Come early!

Pots for Sale

This year we also have an array of handsome, gently used, pots. This is not the whole collection. Beautiful plants deserve a beautiful pot.

Plant Sale begins promptly at 9 am and will conclude at noon. Hope to see you there.

 

Greenfield Garden Club Extravaganza

Plants ready for Greenfield Garden Club Sale

The Greenfield Garden Club Extravaganza is a wonderful plant sale and is held annually on Trap Plain at the corner of Federal and Silver Streets, Greenfield  on Saturday, May 11, 2013 from 8-1.  Hardy perennials from members’ gardens, annuals, herbs, and hanging plants for Mother’s Day will be sold.  There will also be soil testing by the WM Master Gardener volunteers, a Green Thumb Tag Sale, and a Garden Gift Drawing. The Garden Club members have potted up lots of interesting and useful plants from their gardens. This year I am sending the purple campanula ‘Joan Elliot’ which is a wonderful spring bloomer and good at increasing – but not a thug in any sense. I’m also sending an unusual artemesia. Artemesia lactiflora is not silver; the fine foliage is a shade of blue green and it sends up spires of tiny white flowers, kind of like the way coral bells do. I’m also sending a purple leafed coral bells, ‘Terra Cotta’ yarrow, pink chelone (turtlehead) and the wonderful pink Sheffield daisy. I first saw this late summer-fall bloomer at the Smith College Botanical Garden and was lucky that when I bought a pot of ‘pink daisies’ at Wilder Hill Gardens it turned out to be Sheffies. They also propogate nicely, which is why I have some to share. This sale is a good place to do some Mother’s Day shopping.

The Greenfield Garden Club sale is a great chance to get some bargains, of plants and other plant and garden related items at the tag sale, and a great chance to get a soil test. You can’t help loving those Master Gardeners!  All proceeds support the many community projects of the Greenfield Garden Club.

Digging, Weeding and Planting Season in High Gear

Perennial divisions

This is the season of digging, weeding and planting. The priority this weekend was to get plants dug for the two big plant sales coming up. The Greenfield Garden Club, of which I am a member, will have its plant sale on Saturday, May 11 at Trap Plain, at Siver and Federal Streets, and the following weekend, May 18, the Bridge of Flowers will have its plant sale at the Trinity Church’s Baptist Lot in Shelburne Falls. This is a chance to get some great plants for your own garden at very reasonable prices while supporting the educational projects of the Greenfield Garden Club, and the maintenance of the Bridge of Flowers. This year I have dug Sheffield daisiies, crimson bee balm, campanuala ‘Joan Elliot’, Terra Cotta Yarrow, purple leaved coral bells and ‘Switzerland’ shasta daisies. I might find a couple of more clumps that need dividing.

Meadowseet

On Friday I was out and about on a variety of errands. I stopped at the Hadley Garden Center to get extra pots for the Bridge Plant Sale, and couldn’t resist buying this large sage plant known as meadowsweet. The Herb Bed in front of the house always needs refreshing and I thought this would really brighten things up early in the season. I also planted a tiny new French tarragon and summer savory. My parsley and basil plants aren’t ready to go in yet, and I have dill seed at the ready. Perennial herbs are starting to green up, chives, rue, chamomile, mint, lemon balm, bee balm, oregano, golden marjoram, thyme and sage as well as the lilies, stocks, irises, and Sheffield daisies.  Even an Herb Bed deserves a little glamor.

The vegetable beds are all dug and three of the beds are filled with onions, planted this weekend.The garlic is well up and looking good. Two beds are planted with lettuce plants, but it is still too cool for more tender seeds. At this time of the year a Monday Report is mostly a planting list. I put in three more tiarella plants down by the peonies where I am eradicating lawn, two native columbine plants, an Eryingium ‘Sapphire’, and a beautiful yellow epimedium. My own epimediums are just coming into bloom.

It’s not even June but the buds are bustin’ out all over, the sun is shinging and there is more planting to do this Monday morning.