Growing Companion Plants with Tomatoes
The Three Sisters
Companion planting is the practice of growing different varieties vegetables, herbs and flowers together in the same container or garden bed. Good companions have complimentary physical characteristics that mutually benefit the other plants in the grouping. Planting a mix of ornamental and edible plants is not just attractive, but the increased diversity of groupings different plants together can enrich the soil, organically repel insect pests, crowd out weeds, and attract pollinators.
Native Americans pioneered the Three Sisters companion combination by planting corn, squash and beans together in a single mound. As the corn grows upwards, the beans spiral up and around the sturdy cornstalk for support. In return, the beans add nitrogen to the soil, helping feed the nutrient-hungry corn and squash. The broad leaves of the squash (and pumpkins) spread out from the base of the corn stalk, crowding out the weeds and shading the soil to conserve moisture.
Though I don't have the room in my small garden to plant the Three Sisters, I still grow several different combinations of plants including my favorite plant companions: tomatoes, basil and marigolds.
My Favorite Companion Plants: Tomatoes, Marigolds and Basil
Growing up, I enjoyed working with my grandfather in his garden. Pop's large, rectangular vegetable garden was surrounded by a wire fence with an ornate metal entrance gate. Every spring, he filled his garden with several varieties of tomatoes, peppers, beans, carrots, radishes, eggplant and other veggies planted neatly in evenly spaced rows. He planted squash and cucumbers along the edges of the garden, where the plants sprawled out beyond confines of the planting rows.
While he shared his passion for gardening and taught me the basics for growing all things green, I cannot replicate my grandfather's vegetable garden - not in size, quality or diversity. My modest garden plot started as a few raised beds perched about the rocky New England soil and strategically positioned between the trees. Instead of long rows filled with one type of veggie, I packed in as many plants as space allowed and mixed vegetables, herbs and annuals into the same planting beds. The larger squash and tomatoes plants took center stage, with smaller herbs and colorful annuals planted along the borders.
Tre Amici: The Three Friends
Some of my ad-hoc planting combinations worked out pretty well while others, not so much. Without really knowing any better but because we like tomatoes and basil, I planted mixed groupings of tomatoes and basil plants that grew exceptionally well. Some gardeners say that planting tomatoes and basil together increases the flavor and growth of both plants. I cannot say that it does, but freshly picked tomatoes and basil from the garden taste real good together.
My mother always grew marigolds and because I like the yellow and orange blooms best, I added lots of little marigold plants to the garden. The photo below shows a grouping of tomato plants climbing a tripod of wooden stakes that also supports a hanging basket of marigolds, against a backdrop of Brown-eyed Susan and purple coneflowers. Basil plants fill in the gaps around the base of the tomatoes.
The tomato - basil - marigold trilogy is repeated several times in the garden and in the containers on the deck. Growing a small kitchen garden in containers on the deck makes it easy to pluck a few basil leaves for a salad and a fresh, ripe tomato to slice for a sandwich.
We keep the containers watered and pinch back the tops of the basil so the plant keeps producing new leaves. If the basil plant is left to bloom and go to seed, the leaves tend to get bitter. But the flowers attract lots of butterflies!
It wasn’t until after I began reading and collecting gardening books that I started to learn about the practice and benefits of companion planting. The pest repelling properties of marigolds puts them high on the list of desirable plants for the vegetable garden. Colorful long-bloomers that are easy to grow, marigolds fit into the organic approach we take to gardening. The wildlife-friendly yard attracts birds and butterflies, encouraging a natural balance between pesky bugs and the beneficial insects that eat them. We never use pesticides in the garden.
With confirmation that flowers can move into the veggie garden, I added borders of marigolds and other flowers around most of the planting beds containing vegetables and herbs. More marigolds are planted in containers. Some planting pots do not have enough room for both the vegetables and the flowers, so I added containers filled with marigolds.
After the bloom fades, deadhead the plant to remove the spent flower and encourage new buds. The former flower pops right off the plant, and rolling the deadheaded remains between the palms of your hands releases a pleasant aroma. For an added bonus, the scent of marigolds may repel mosquitoes.
My deck now boasts several containers planted with mixtures of tomatoes, basil, parsley, cayenne and Jalapeno peppers, yellow and orange marigolds, petunias and coleus. Other colorful and visually appealing varieties of perennials and annuals are planted in adjoining containers including fig trees, blue agave, low growing succulents and a carnivorous pitcher plant.
The garden beds are filled with strawberries, bell peppers, carrots, cucumbers, several varieties tomatoes, zucchini, basil, dill, oregano, parsley and thyme, along with a generous mix of flowering annuals and perennials.
Trying Different Combinations
In my small garden, I strive to maximize the available space by planting different varieties of flowers, vegetables and herbs in limited spaces. One example is this 3-foot-by-3-foot planting bed, which is anchored by a large (and growing) zucchini. Chives and chocolate mint are the perennial residents sharing the space. The chives bloom in early spring, and I harvest the green tips throughout the summer. The zucchini still has a few yellow flowers and the plant is just starting to bear fruits. The chocolate mint sends off shoots that pop up throughout the planting bed, and the wooden borders prevent this unruly plant from spreading beyond the confines of the planter.
In the background are a few wispy fronds of asparagus that shares another small planting bed with more tomatoes, basil and marigolds. The asparagus sends up several tasty spears in the spring. As the perennial retreats for the summer, I over-plant the bed with veggies.
Do Yellow Flowers Attract Bad Bugs?
According to some resources, gardeners shouldn't plant yellow marigolds near their vegetables because insects are attracted to yellow (think of those yellow colored bug traps). I mix in yellow marigolds among the veggies plants and except for pollinators such as bees, I have not noticed any increase of undesirable pests.
Besides, I like the yellow flowers.
Companion Planting is all about experimentation, and mixing different varieties of vegetables with flowers and herbs that look good together, and share the same basic requirements for soil, sunshine and water. If the plant combinations that look good, the initial benefit is the increased visual appeal of the garden. The growing benefits are compounded if the plant combinations discourage insect pests, or encourage more good bugs and pollinators to visit your garden.
My grandfather loved his garden, carefully arranged into long rows of vegetables, and I learned a lot about gardening from his years of experience. Though my garden is not as neat or organized, I like the overall appearance with its mixtures of colors and textures. I think my grandfather would like it too.
Do You Mix Flowers and Veggies in the Garden?
Companion Planting Poll:
A Few Common Companion Plantings:
- Basil: Plant with tomatoes, peppers, broccoli and leafy herbs
- Bean: Plant with corn, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, melons, squash, pumpkins, peas, peppers -- just about any garden veggies. Beans add nitrogen to the soil, increasing their organic benefits
- Borage: Plant with tomatoes, cabbage, lettuce and squash. Borage is on my list of plants to add to my garden because it reportedly deters the tomato hornworm. Its fragrant blossoms attract a variety of bees, butterflies and other pollinators.
- Chives: Plant with tomatoes and carrots
- Dill: Plant with cabbage and lettuce. Dill attracts many beneficial insects, but also attract the tomato hornworm.
Do not plant Dill near tomatoes or carrots
- Geraniums: Plant with tomatoes, peppers, corn and cabbage. Geraniums repel Japanese beetles, and are a good companion plant for roses and grapes.
- Marigolds: My favorite companion plant, marigolds repel insects and are a good match with just about every garden plant.
- Mint: Plant near tomatoes and squash (zucchini). Mint is very invasive and will spread quickly if not contained.
- Parsley: Plant with tomatoes, carrots and peppers
Companion Planting Video
This short video by GrowOrganic Peaceful Valley demonstrates the science behind companion planting.
My Companion Planted Garden
Beneficial Insects: The Good Bugs in the Garden
Good Bugs Are A Plant's Best Friend
One of the benefits of companion planting is using the natural properties of certain plants to attract pollinators, as well as attracting the predators that feed on the insect pests that plague our plants. Not every bug is a pest, and many gardeners recognize the benefits of attracting beneficial insects into their gardens. Inviting predator bugs including ladybugs, praying mantis and damsel flies into the garden helps to control the populations of insect pests without resorting to harmful pesticides.
Combining companion plants into the veggies patch adds diversity to the garden, giving the good bugs shelter and places to raise their young. Consider mixing in sunflowers and milkweeds (along with the marigolds) and adding extra dill and parsley plants.
Ladybugs and praying mantis are among the most recognizable beneficial predator bugs, and they have insatiable appetites for insects. Ladybugs are especially effective in controlling infestations of aphids and other soft-bodied insects. An adult ladybug can eat up to 50 aphids each day.
Add a Ladybug House
This simple ladybug house is easy to make from a few pieces of scrap wood, and it offers the little beetles with a place to take shelter from the wind and rain. While a bug box does not guarantee that a colony of ladybugs will move in and take up residence in your garden, adding a ladybug house is an attractive element in any wildlife-friendly yard.
Place the ladybug house in a sunny location, mounted about three feet above the ground. Add a ladybug lure and a few crumpled leaves to the interior, and the house is ready for occupancy.
For step-by-step instructions for making your own ladybug house, please visit How To Build A Ladybug House
Releasing Ladybugs Into the Garden
Can't find any ladybugs in your garden? Try releasing a thousand hungry ladybugs into your yard. Ladybugs and Praying Mantis are raised commercially, and they ship well through the mail. If your yard offers the right environment, a package of ladybugs might start a new colony that will protect your garden for several of their generations.
My Companion Garden (Early Summer)
© 2014 Anthony Altorenna