Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 15 December 2019

A friend in need: companion planting

We attend a workshop on companion planting, held by the Balcony and Urban Gardening Group in the UAE, to find out about the benefits of pairing up plants in your growing space.
Sarah Lazarovic for The National
Sarah Lazarovic for The National

If you imagine “companion planting” to be a pleasant potter around the garden with a friend, you may be on to something. But it is also a system of buddying up the various plants in your garden to help control pests, maximise planting space, assist with pollination, encourage growth and improve yield. It can even enhance the flavour of your produce.

I went along to a presentation by the South African landscape designer Leon Zaayman, one of a series of garden-­related workshops organised for the members of Slow Food Dubai and the Balcony and Urban Gardening Group of the UAE (Buggs). Zaayman is there to talk us through the benefits of companion or associated planting, and offer some advice and guidance as to which plants make the best of friends in the garden.

Zaayman references the “three sisters”, a system adopted by Native American cultures, as an early example of companion planting. This drew together three of the food staples of the time – corn, beans and squash – as a crop group. Incidentally, all of these will thrive in the UAE during the growing season.

“The first sister, corn, grows tallest to assist and protect the beans and squash,” Zaayman explains. “The second sister, beans, use the height and structure of corn as support and releases nitrogen into the soil, which is required by the corn. The large leaves of the third sister, squash, cover the soil, shade out nutrient-sucking weeds and provide compost to the soil.”

This also optimises planting space, as it looks at how these plants grow in nature and plays to the strengths of each, maximising the productivity of the available agricultural land.

Companion planting can also be a smart and natural way of controlling pests. Scented plants, such as coriander, basil, mint, onions, dill, marigolds and geranium, can be used as a deterrent for pests like whiteflies, aphids, nematodes and spider mites. When it comes to scented plants, potted specimens grouped together will offer all the benefits of companion planting, even if they’re not placed in the same soil. Mint, for example, gets hungry in pots and has a tendency to bolt in the garden, so it’s wise to keep it ­individually contained and placed near its plant buddies. In this way, its neighbours will benefit from its ability to repel pests, but be protected from its voraciousness.

As an aside, Zaayman offers another chemical-free way of addressing the issue of pests, and suggests using a spray of either “neem oil, chilli-garlic oil, white oil [mix a teaspoon of earth-friendly washing-up liquid with one teaspoon of vegetable oil and one litre of water] or a ‘tea’ made from tomato leaves steeped in water”.

While some plants can be used to repel harmful insects and bugs, others are essential in ­attracting useful ones. “Blossoming herbs, salads and vegetables attract good insects, such as bees and butterflies, which help with pollination, an essential requirement of such crops as ­aubergines and tomatoes. Consider plants such as ­nasturtiums, ­calendula, blossoming lettuce and marigolds for this,” ­Zaayman recommends.

When it comes to companion planting, a basic guideline is to combine tall plants with deeper root growth with lower-growing plants with a shallow root network. This will allow you to maximise the output of your growing space. An example of this variable growth equation could be aubergines and lettuce, or tomatoes and basil (which has the added benefit of enhancing the flavour of the tomatoes grown with it).

Considered companion planting can also help to enhance growth, as the byproduct of one plant will often provide food for another. “Natural fertiliser is created, with nitrogen released from the roots of both peas and beans, to the benefit of such plants as tomatoes, carrots, celery and chard, etc, when grouped together,” says ­Zaayman. “Digging eggshells in around your plants is also a useful fertiliser, as they are 93 per cent calcium carbonate and help make your soil more alkaline.”

Companion planting can work especially well for the balcony gardener and can make an ­attractive proposition for cropping. Zaayman demonstrates interplanting of tomatoes, marigolds, basil, tarragon and chives – taking the humble tomato plant to a new level of display, and making it worthy of a key position in your garden.

Other plant buddies for the UAE garden, balcony or terrace, might include:

• Carrots and leeks planted in the same row, or carrots and onions, which help to repel carrot flies and onion flies. You can also add coriander and marigolds or geraniums, as these scented plants will help to protect carrots from other pests. Onions make good companions for strawberries and help to protect them from disease; onions also like camomile, which improves their flavour. As for fruit trees, try interplanting lavender and garlic to repel aphids and other pests.

• Aubergine and lettuce work well together, as the flowers ­attract insects for the pollination of the aubergine and the lettuce makes the aubergine taste sweeter.

• Broccoli and basil, which helps to repel mosquitoes and flies, and celery/onions or potatoes, which will enhance the ­flavour of broccoli.

• Peas (or any other legumes as they will fix nitrogen in the soil) and celery or cucumber, both of which will benefit from the nitrogen, and radishes, which deter cucumber beetles.

The permutations for companion planting are almost infinite and will be influenced by the growing conditions of your site, personal taste and what you view as pleasing to the eye. Consider how cabbages have crept into ornamental flower displays and you’ll get the idea.

Whatever combination you opt for, give all of your companion plants the best chance of survival by paying close attention to the three elements of soil, water and sun.

To create ideal soil conditions, Laura Allais-Maré, the founder of Slow Food Dubai, recommends a mixture of 40 per cent red sweet sand with 10 per cent peat moss or coco peat with perlite (for aeration), to which a ­potting mix can be added.

Despite tap water in the UAE being desalinated, there are still traces of salt present, and some sensitive plants will be affected by this, so the use of ­non-chemically treated mulch is recommended to retain moisture in the soil.

Lastly, the gardener’s friend and potential foe: the sun. “This is essential for all plants to thrive, but given our geography, it is suggested that full and direct sun is avoided, especially from March to October, between 10am and 4pm,” says Allais-Maré. Avoid ­watering ­directly on to foliage when the sun is shining on your plants, as the water droplets will act as a magnifier and can scorch the leaves.

“Essentially, companion planting helps bring a more balanced ecosystem to our landscape, allowing nature to do its job.” Zaayman concludes. “The death or byproduct of one organism can create food for another, because almost all of nature exists by symbiotic relationships.”

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Updated: February 12, 2015 04:00 AM

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