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Spring Vegetable Gardens: Are you hungry?

Don Trotter

Hello Fellow Earthlings, and welcome back into the garden. Our discussion this time will focus on companion planting for nitrogen management and to bring beneficial insects into your garden to assist in pest control. Many companion plants have benefits to gardeners beyond providing added nitrogen to soil or luring "good guy" insects to your garden spaces.

Many companion plants are well known culinary herbs. Others are planted commonly in flowerbeds for their beautiful blooms. The reason certain plants are considered good companions is because they do things for other crops that either enhance their health by increasing soil fertility, secrete compounds that pests or diseases can't tolerate, or their pollen and nectar-rich flowers draw a variety of beneficial insects into the garden. Think of companion plants as attractive and functional plants that serve to do more than just look pretty or feed you.

There are many ways to use companion plants. I have a friend that plants red clover and alfalfa as a ground cover in the pathways of her vegetable garden each year to supplement the nitrogen in her soil and she allows these plants to flower so that certain beneficial insects that are predatory or parasitic to pest insects. In the following year she covers these pathways with a thick layer of compost and uses the pathways as her garden space in that year. This practice of bed rotation allows her to minimize problems often associated with soil compaction. The clovers, alfalfa, and other plants she puts into her pathways take valuable nitrogen from the air and fix it into the soil which supplements her need to fertilize so she doesn't spend nearly as much money each year on nutrients for her vegetables.

The great thing about using these plants is that they can be mowed. So she gets to have lovely green pathways in her vegetable plot that retard weed growth while they provide the other benefits associated with companion planting. Plus the cutting she captures in here mower bag makes a superb addition to her compost heap keeping her supply of this valuable material constant.

More traditional use of companion plants is to draw beneficial insects into the garden. Certain plants have extremely rich supplies of pollen and nectar in their flowers. This abundance of food is irresistible to adult beneficial insects like Lacewings, Ladybird beetles of many types, beneficial parasitic wasps, and a myriad of other good guys. When these insects are drawn into the garden to feed. They then gorge themselves on the abundant food source and then do what comes naturally, they procreate. This means that the adult insects look for the natural food source for their offspring. This means the aphids that attack your broccoli or your roses, the caterpillars on your cabbage, the whiteflies on your spinach, or the hornworms on your tomatoes.

These adult beneficial insects search out the locations of the pests in your gardens and lay their eggs close to, on, or in the pest and let their offspring (larvae) eat up your pest populations. The real beauty of this natural system is that these beneficial insects are as native to our area as the pests are and they want to eat. The logical thing to do is to let them eat the pests in your garden. This cuts down on the time you spend controlling pests and hopefully eliminates the use of toxic chemical pesticides in your gardens, which saves you time, labor and money in the garden. Seems sensible to let nature do the work, doesn't it?

Some of the most common and useful companion plants for the residential garden to control pest populations are: alfalfa, many types of clover, sweet alyssum, marigolds, calendulas, dill weed, many members of the mint family, parsley, feverfew and other member of the chrysanthemum family, cilantro (coriander), Queen Anne's lace, basil, thyme, oregano, buckwheat, and carrots.

A few plants that enhance soil fertility are alfalfa, soybeans, clovers, sweet peas, soybeans, and some annual grasses.

As you can see companion plants are not exotic, unknown species that cannot be found in garden centers. They are in fact very common garden plants that may already be some of your favorite members of the garden. If you would like a complete list of companion plants for the garden send me an email or fax me your request. I'll be glad to pass on more information. Next time we will be discussing soil preparation and fertilizing for your spring veggies. See you in the Garden!

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