Sunday 25 February 2018

Happy together: companion gardening tricks

As your veg patch becomes overcrowded, interplanting techniques can help maximise your growing potential

The 'two sisters' approach is the very essence of a productive veg patch.
The 'two sisters' approach is the very essence of a productive veg patch.

Michael Kelly

DURING the short but determined heat wave we had recently I made a rather rash executive decision to plant out pretty much everything that was left in the potting shed. For weeks I had been holding off on the grounds that it still felt like winter, and then suddenly we seemed to bounce straight in to high summer, bypassing spring entirely. If there is to be a headline that will sum up this growing year it will be this: "2013 – The year that spring forgot".

Briefly, gloriously, out came the shorts, sun cream and white legs to celebrate the sunshine and temperatures of up to 25 degrees Celsius. It was so hot in the potting shed, my seedlings were at risk of wilting and drying out, so it seemed appropriate just to get them planted out as soon as possible.

I just decided to go for it (rebel that I am), and spent pretty much the entire day in the veg patch, planting out seedling after seedling. I planted out celeriac, beetroot, fennel, cauliflower, kale, turnip, squash, pumpkin, courgette, lettuce, spinach, dwarf French bean, runner bean, sweetcorn and climbing French bean. PHEW.

Then of course, the weather broke on Monday and I realised that I had been rather premature. There were some anxious moments then, worrying that some of the seedlings would die. Sweetcorn, for example, is notoriously picky about its growing conditions. It's the Barbara Streisand of vegetables – a right diva – and expects plenty of sunshine and warmth as well as supplies of Evian water in its dressing room.

My eight sweetcorn seedlings went straight from their module trays to the ground outside. But when normal Irish weather resumed, that seemed rather hasty, and I felt they could have done with another few weeks in the warmth of the potting shed. They are sulking now, predictably. Suddenly, things are very crowded in the veg patch. With the exception of some space remaining in the Brassica bed (which is reserved for the stalwarts of the winter garden – sprouts and sprouting broccoli), there isn't space to plant anything else now.

That the veg patch could be suddenly full is a surprising turn of events, since up to a few weeks ago the place looked pretty bare.

At this time of the year, as the real estate of your veg patch becomes more crowded, it makes sense to use every available inch of space. For example, lettuce seedlings can be planted in space created by harvesting one or two potato plants; a narrow strip beside the globe artichoke plants can be filled with spinach seedlings; a sowing of quick-growing radishes can be thrown in where garlic is removed.

These plants don't need to be included in a crop rotation and so can be shoved in pretty much anywhere. This is the very essence of a productive veg patch.

One is always struck by just how much space pumpkin, squash and courgette plants need when planted out – at least 1.2m apart. I know they will grow quickly and pretty soon you will be cursing them for having annexed every available inch of the veg bed, but in the interim it seems like a terrible waste of space.

I've found a way to address this. It's called the 'two sisters' approach. The idea is that in a veg bed, you grow climbing beans (French or runner) on the outside of the bed, and in between them you plant squashes and pumpkins. The latter trail along the ground, while the former climb up. This is a really good use of space.

There's also a cosy little symbiotic relationship going on: beans are known as 'nitrogen fixers' – they take nitrogen from the air and fix it in the soil while they grow. The intercropped plants simply grow better as a result of being planted beside them. Furthermore, the squash or pumpkin plants effectively mulch the ground, keeping the place weed-free and moist.

The more complicated 'three sisters' approach involves adding sweetcorn plants to the mix to act as support for the growing beans.

I've never taken it quite that far on the grounds that things might get a little overcrowded.

The three sisters tradition is laid down in the legends of the Iroquois people (Native North Americans) who believed that corn, beans and squash were three inseparable sisters and would only grow well if kept together. This is another fine example of how tradition often seems rooted in good science.

Another variant of the idea of inter-planting is to sow green manures at the base of climbing beans to act as ground cover to suppress weeds and provide feed to the plants as they grow.

* Michael Kely is author of 'Trading Paces' and 'Tales from the Home Farm', and founder of GIY.

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