Companion Planting and Other Tactics - Playing It Smart in the Garden

Tomato hornworm
The way you layout your garden is important for lots of reasons. Some areas of your landscape are more accessible than others, offer better sun exposure or provide greater protection from the wind and weather. Before you start planning your herb and vegetable garden next year, consider more than topography when evaluating where to put your plants, though.

There are plenty of articles about companion planting and other ways you can make pest and plant behavior work for you instead of against you. Here are some tactics I've used to make growing season more rewarding while keeping my blood pressure -- and my garden center bills -- down.

Good Bugs vs. Bad Bugs - The Epic Battle of Good vs. Evil

Some plants attract beneficial insects, while others discourage destructive insects. With a little forethought, you can make these behaviors work for you by being smart about your garden design. This is one of the basic ideas behind companion planting. These days, CP is often considered an organic gardening solution, but even if you use pesticides occasionally, the neighborly approach (as in good neighbors make a great first line defense against pests) can still help you grow healthier, happier plants.

Hey, think of it as a free layer of protection. All you have to do is change the seating chart a little. For example: I like planting rue near my rose bushes because it attracts lady bugs, which in turn devour encroaching aphids. I also try to plant sage near broccoli and kale because it repels white cabbage moths. Gardeners have come up with lots of CP matchups that work for different applications. More on this in a minute.

Sneaky but Legal

There are also other ways to beat the bugs at their own game:

Lures - If you love squash but hate squash bugs, plant bright yellow flowers away from your vegetable patch. Squash bugs are attracted to yellow (because squash flowers are typically yellow) and will be lured away from your planted squash. You can then use insecticide on the non-edible flowers to keep squash bugs under better control. (Another option is to use yellow fabric or even Mylar ribbon attached to a nearby fence or tree as a lure.)

You can also use commercially available traps that rely on natural pheromones to lure a variety of bugs into small containers from which they are unable to escape. (Although this seems like an organized and efficient solution, remember, any overflow pests that don't make it into the trap will be free to roam around your garden.)

Parasites - Microscopic worms collectively called "beneficial nematodes" are available that will kill the early developmental stages of bugs like flea beetles, squash bugs, bagworms, Japanese beetles and others. You spray a water mixture containing the worms on your lawn and soil once or twice a year to keep pest populations down. The spray is colorless, odorless and won't hurt honey bees or most other beneficial insects.

Protective Reinforcements - Another option is to purchase a live community of beneficial bugs like praying mantis or lady bugs to protect your property. Think of them as insect mercenaries guarding your borders. Yes, some do fly away, but others take up residence and do their duty just fine.

Repellents - If you have Japanese beetle problems, say, you can always kill a few beetles, make a "tea" of bug bits and water and leave it in a bucket. The smell will discourage new beetles from staking a claim to your rose bushes. This olfactory tactic can work for other types of bugs, too.


The Example of the Three Sisters

Companion planting also works in ways unrelated to pest control. It can use a plant's native habit, color or chemical makeup to produce "cooperative" success in the garden. For example, planting a climber like beans near a tall, stable plant like corn produces a support structure for the bean without your having to put down a pole or add a trellis. This is one of the benefits of the "three sisters" approach to farming, a classic Native American example of the dynamic power of companion planting.

You've probably heard it referred to before: The three sisters are three plants that help one another through the growing season: corn, climbing beans and squash. The corn provides the "pole" for the beans; the beans add nitrogen to the soil to help sustain the corn and squash; and the squash offers natural mulch and protection from moisture loss through evaporation, all while keeping weeds to a minimum by blanketing the soil with a dense, shady canopy of large leaves. Elegant. Simple. Effective.

You can find examples of three sisters gardens here: Three Sisters

As promised above, here are some popular examples of plants (often herbs with vegetables) that grow well together:

  • Asparagus with parsley or dill
  • Beans with beets, lovage, corn, rosemary, larkspur or radishes
  • Beets with garlic
  • Cabbage with thyme, dill, chamomile, onion or mint
  • Carrots with peas, radishes or tomatoes
  • Celery with chives or rosemary
  • Corn with beans, squash, potatoes or cucumbers
  • Eggplant with thyme, mint, catnip or garlic
  • Grapes with hyssop
  • Leeks with carrots
  • Lettuce with cucumbers or strawberries
  • Melon with pigweed or summer savory
  • Okra with chervil
  • Peas with garlic or mint
  • Peppers with carrots or bee balm
  • Potatoes with cilantro
  • Pumpkins with oregano
  • Raspberries with garlic
  • Squash with tansy
  • Strawberries with sage, thyme and borage
  • Tomatoes with basil or bee balm
  • Turnips with peppermint or sage
  • Watermelon with nasturtium (Works with other melons, too.)

Okay, a list of good plant pairings is helpful, but it doesn't give you much wiggle room. Many of these pairings use one plant's pest repellent ability to protect the other plant from insects that would otherwise consider it a banquet.

 If some plants naturally repel certain insects, then placing those plants where you have, or figure you might have, a specific insect problem should help keep pest populations down, whether they're next to historically compatible companions or not.

If you've struggled with whitefly in the past, knowing a variety of plants whitefly avoids will help you choose a winner -- but with a little more flexibility. In this case, nasturtium, French marigold and basil do a good job of repelling whitefly, so if you want a flowering plant, choose French marigold or nasturtium. If you want an edible plant, then basil is your best bet.

Squash bug

What follows is a list of insects - and one pesky mammal - together with the plants they really don't like being around. These pairings probably won't do the same bug prevention job as a strong pesticide, though. If they could, pesticides would be obsolete. They will help  control pest populations somewhat successfully without a lot of chemicals.

You can also grow these plants in bulk and use them to prepare homemade bug sprays (or noxious smoothies). Homemade sprays can be quite effective, but they need to be reapplied often.

Oh, and don't expect one puny specimen to hold back the horde. You don't need a one to one ratio necessarily, but make sure your pest control plants have strong representation in the garden. It's also a good idea to place them next to vulnerable plants as well as around the perimeter of the garden and in locations where there's good air flow (so their fragrances will travel a respectable distance).

Pests and the Plants they Love to Hate

For the most part, I haven't included the scientific names for the plants or insects, but absent any notation, you can assume I'm referring to the most common variety your likely to find in your garden or at your local nursery. Related plant cultivars may work as deterrents, but keep in mind it's a trial and error proposition.

  • Ants - catnip, peppermint, tansy
  • Aphids - chives, rue, pyrethum, mustard, dill, mint, nasturtium, coriander (cilantro), garlic
  • Asparagus beetles - calendula (pot marigold), basil, tomato plant, petunia, parsley
  • Bean beetles - santolina (a particularly effective artemisia), nasturtium, summer savory, rosemary, marigold
  • Black flies - garlic
  • Borers - garlic, onion
  • Cabbage looper - artemisias, eucalyptus, dill, hyssop, garlic
  • Cabbage moths - mint, celery, nasturtium, chamomile, sage, hyssop, artemisias (like wormwood), thyme, oregano
  • Cabbage worms - thyme
  • Carrot fly - sage, rosemary, onion, leek
  • Caterpillars (various) - garlic, bay laurel
  • Cockroaches - feverfew, tansy
  • Codling moths - artemisias
  • Corn earworms - thyme, geranium, cosmos
  • Cucumber beetles - marigold, oregano, rue radish
  • Cutworms - onion
  • Earwigs - wormwood
  • Flea beetles - catnip, catmint (different but related to catnip), mint, rue, artemisias, sage
  • Fleas - pennyroyal, yarrow, rue, lavender, sage
  • Flies - basil, pennyroyal, mint, tansy, rue, wormwood, lavender
  • Gnats - pennyroyal, lemon balm
  • Hornworms (Tomato hornworms) - basil, petunia, marigold, dill, borage
  • Japanese beetles - rue, garlic, geranium
  • Leaf hoppers - pyrethum (chrysanthemum cinerariifolium)
  • Mice - mint, wormwood, tansy
  • Mites - dill, chives, pyrethum, onion
  • Mosquitoes (or their larvae) - basil, pennyroyal, yarrow, lemongrass, geranium, tansy, lavender, lemon balm, rosemary
  • Moths (various) - lavender, mugwort, rosemary, santolina, coriander (cilantro), wormwood, sweet woodruff, tansy, rosemary
  • Nematodes - chives, dahlias, French marigold (There are destructive nematodes around and chives repels the good with the bad.)
  • Potato beetles (Leptinotarsa decemlineata) - nasturtiums, coriander (cilantro)
  • Potato bugs (Stenopelmatus spp.) - horseradish
  • Pumpkin beetles (various) - nasturtiums
  • Slugs - sage, onions, fennel, rosemary, wormwood
  • Snails - sage, onions, fennel, wormwood, rosemary
  • Spider mites - coriander (cilantro), garlic, dill
  • Squash beetles - nasturtium, catnip,
  • Squash bugs - peppermint, dill, tansy, nasturtium
  • Sticks (Phasmatodea) - sage
  • Termites - catnip
  • Whitefly - nasturtiums, French marigold, basil

Not all plant pairings are copacetic. Next time we'll discuss "lousy neighbors." You know, those folks that just never seem to get along. I wouldn't want you to accidentally create a plant feud.

Have a great weekend.


Cornell University Cooperative Extension. "Companion Planting." 1999

Painter, Tammie. "Plants that Repel Insects." Mother Earth Living. 2010>

Home Grown Texas. "Herbs That Repel Bugs." 2003.

Alabama Cooperative Extension. "Companion Plants." Undated.


Photo 1 - Tomato Hornworm By George Bredehoft (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo 2 - Aphids By Alvesgaspar (Own work (own photo)) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo 3 - Squash Bug By Noel Feans [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

5 More Culinary Herbs You Should Grow at Home

After last week's post about culinary herbs, I was bombarded with suggestions for the next five on my list of "cooking helper" favorites. It's pretty surprising how many plants, trees, shrubs and vines have parts and pieces that make foods taste better. Choosing the best is impossible, but there are some popular choices that add variety to recipes and tend to be stress free plants in the garden. They are also reliable performers.

For me, "reliable" means I can predict how they'll behave in a new recipe pretty accurately. This can be an important factor when dealing with any seasoning. If you don't know how it will behave, it'll likely just sit in its pretty jar until you decide -- a few years down the line -- to throw it away.

Before I get to the list, I wanted to review a few general guidelines for using herbs and spices in the kitchen:

Dried Tarragon

Timing - When you add a specific herb or spice to a recipe can be important. Most spices lose their flavor and become bitter over a long cooking time, so it's usually better to add them late in the process. Some exceptions are bay leaf, sage, rosemary and garlic. Good candidates for late (within the last half hour) addition include thyme, oregano and marjoram.

Candidates for very late handling (within the last five minutes of cooking) include dill, tarragon, cilantro and chives. When in doubt, follow the instructions on the recipe. If you're experimenting and have to guess, later is better than sooner.

Fresh for dried herbs and vice versa - In many recipes, using fresh or dried herbs is spelled out for you. Simple recipes showcasing convenience often use dried herbs over fresh. You can usually switch from on to the other, though, with a few caveats and adjustments. The typical conversion is three to one. A recipe that calls for one teaspoon of a dried herb will require three teaspoons (or one tablespoon) of that same herb used fresh. There are some exceptions. With strongly flavored herbs like garlic, rosemary and cilantro, for instance, it's a good idea to start with a two to one ratio and perform taste tests from there until you're satisfied.

Using old herbs - Herbs lose flavor during long term storage. The experts used to recommend pitching herbs and spices after six months to a year, but nowadays, that's changed. Freshness for most herbs has been extended from one to two years or so -- about double the old recommendation. That's certainly a money saving proposition, but an herb that was packaged a month ago will still have more oomph than one that's been sitting around for 18 months. The solution is to use a little more of an older herb to achieve the same flavor power. Twenty five percent more is probably a good compromise, but here again nothing beats taste testing for the best results.

If you're buying an herb or spice at the market and know the quantity on offer will last you a long, long while, prefer whole pods, seeds or sticks (if applicable) to pre-ground alternatives. Ground nutmeg will taste like sawdust after six months, but the whole, shelled nutmeg seed will stay fragrant and flavorful a couple of years or longer. Just use a grater to shave off what you need.

Dried herbs that don't bring the flavor - Some herbs don't have much flavor once they're dried -- period. They likely contain delicate flavor compounds that don't survive the drying process very well. It's best to use these herbs in a form other than dried whenever possible. This can include fresh purchased herbs from the market, herbs overwintered indoors, frozen herbs harvested from the garden or fresh garden herbs. Here are some delicate candidates for the "do not buy dry" list: ginger, tarragon, chives, cilantro and basil.

I do use questionable, dried herbs on occasion (yeah, I admit it) but only if there's no other option. It's always a good idea to use the best ingredients you can find, though. This is particularly true with herbs because they have a huge impact on the final flavor profile of a dish -- and often you won't realize you've blown it until serving time. Curses!

Okay, with that behind us, here's my list of five more herbs that belong on your table -- at least occasionally:

Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus sativa) 

Tarragon is the little herb that proves cousins can have less in common than you might think. There are two popular types of tarragon, French (Artemisia dracunculus), which is fragrant and tasty, and Russian (Artemisia dracunculoides pursch), which is kinda bland. Beware of sellers who advertise "Tarragon" without specifying what they're really offering. It might well be the Russian variety because Russian tarragon is somewhat more robust and easier to cultivate. Refer to the Latin names whenever possible. This is a good habit to get into whatever the plants you're interested in.

Tarragon has a flavor somewhat reminiscent of licorice but in a different way from both bail and fennel. It is quite mild, and for want of a better word -- smooth. It tastes particularly effective with fowl and is quite refreshing in cold dishes like chicken and pasta salad. I've said before that if you're not using tarragon now, it can revitalize your recipes, giving them a more grown up, subtle flavor. That's pretty good value from an herb that's easy to grow.

Although it's somewhat less well known, there's also a Mexican tarragon variety that has the characteristic anise flavor associated with tarragon, but shares more with Russian tarragon than the true and tasty French friend we've come to know and love.

The word "tarragon" actually comes from the French, meaning "small dragon." Beyond that, the origins of the name are unclear, but some herb historians believe it relates to the fact that tarragon was once used to treat snakebite.

Artemisia dracunculus sativa (French tarragon) is a perennial that likes rich, well-drained soil and good sun. Hardy from Zones 4 through 9, it grows to about 28 inches in height. Special note: If you experience hot summers, choose a spot for tarragon that gets some dappled light or afternoon shade.

How to Grow Tarragon
Tarragon Mustard Recipe
What's a Good Tarragon Substitute

Dill Seed

Dill (Anethum graveolens)

Dill was once considered an aphrodisiac, but that was long before people realized how wonderful this herb can taste in pickle making! Dill is actually pretty versatile. You've probably added it to salmon and other fish, but it's also delicious baked into herbed rolls or breads, added to hummus or as a garnish on fried or grilled liver. (Really -- it's tasty with chicken or beef liver.) This annual self-seeds like crazy and tends to bolt when temps rise in late spring and early summer. Unlike some herbs on this list, dill holds its flavor when dried, so it's a great harvesting herb throughout the season.

Dill, like tarragon, likes rich soil, a well-drained location and dappled light on very hot summer days. Standard varieties can grow to five feet and get floppy, so keep dill staked or away from the windward side of your garden.

How to Grow Dill 
How to Keep Plants from Bolting
Fresh Lemon and Dill Spice Blend for Fish

Garlic (Allium sativum)

What can we say about garlic? It has been rhapsodized by great gourmands and adopted as the patron herb of entire cultures. Its small, whitish bulbs are fragrant, flavorful and easy to use in cooking either fresh, pickled, in oil, powdered or added to salt mixtures. Of course, we like our garlic fresh. Cloves pulled right from the bulb have a distinctly sweet flavor that reveals itself spectacularly when used with mild ingredients like potatoes.

Garlic can be a big boon in the garden, too. It repels all manner of pests and doesn't ask much by way of compensation. It has a long growing cycle, though. The garlic cloves you plant this season won't be ready to harvest until next year. Once you get a rotation going, though, you'll have a regular supply of garlic for as long as you have a garden. You can use grocery store garlic as starter stock in the garden, too, so planting this herb doesn't necessarily require a trip to the nursery.

Starting Garlic from Cloves
Herbal Mosquito Repellent Recipe

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)

Thyme is the herb that can. It has been use for centuries as an ingredient in stews, soups and sauces, helping to bring out the native flavors of meats and aromatic vegetables like onions, carrots, celery and turnips. It's also a key ingredient in some popular spice blends you may recognize like: Jamaican jerk, Cajun rub, Bouquet Garni and Herbs De Provence.

There are a number of thyme varieties, including groundcovers (creepers), silver cultivars and thymes with special fragrances like lemon, lime or caraway. It's a good idea to stick with classic thyme for kitchen duty, though.

This little perennial likes good sun and rich but somewhat alkaline soil. A determined survivor, thyme can thrive under somewhat adverse conditions. It will do well in a windy spot or one that receives occasional foot traffic or tends to get hose burn from the garden hose. Thyme does require soil the drains well, though.

Thyme for the Garden

Oregano (Origanum vulgare)

Oregano is a popular herb in both Italian and Greek cooking. It has a strong flavor that's an excellent counterpoint to the bright, acidic bite of tomatoes. It adds zip to sauces and works well with meats like lamb and pork.

A perennial, oregano is hardy from Zones 5 to 12, and it's another candidate for rich but slightly alkaline soil. Although it likes bright light, heat can sometimes be a problem. In warm climate locations, offer oregano a little afternoon shade if possible. There are a number of oregano varieties, but Origanum vulgare hirtum, is widely considered the most flavorful for culinary applications.

I like to add oregano to prepared fare, like jarred spaghetti sauce, stewed tomatoes and pizza sauce. It's a good flavoring agent for vegetable dishes that include squash, eggplant, bell pepper or green beans, and it's an essential herb for tasty minestrone. I simply strip young leaves from their stems, mince them and add them during the last half-hour of simmering time. Unlike some herbs, oregano tends to have a more resinous and intense flavor when fresh, so it's one candidate for a "less is more" approach when switching from dried to fresh in recipes. A two-to-one ratio is a good start until you know how this herb will behave for you.

Growing Oregano

For a recap of the first five kitchen worthy herbs, please visit: 5 Easy Culinary Herbs You Should Be Growing In Your Garden


Photo1 - Dried Tarragon By KVDP at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Photo 1A - Tarragon Plant By Roger Bamkin (Wikipedia Takes Coventry participant) (Uploaded from Wikipedia Takes Coventry) [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo 2 - Dill By Audrey from Central Pennsylvania, USA (Dill Drops Uploaded by Fæ) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo 3 - Garlic By Zack Dowell (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo 4 - Thyme By Ghislain118 (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo 5 - Oregano By Roula30 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


Happy Independence Day

I've been maintaining this blog since the end of 2007, and in that time have produced quite a bit of content -- going on 500 posts or so.  Sometimes good tips, tricks and plant profiles get lost in the stacks (or the electronic equivalent), so I wanted to take the time to review a few personal favorites. You may be celebrating the holiday with a backyard get together or a trip to a local park to watch fireworks, but if you have some time today or over the weekend, take a few minutes to review these older posts. They're great with a morning cup of coffee -- in the garden, of course.

Have a wonderful 4th of July celebration!

July in the Garden
Beating the Heat in the Garden
Watering Herbs in Pots
Zucchini Problems - Beating the Bugs
The Best Drought Tolerant Herbs
Herbs that Grow in Shade