10 Multipurpose Plants for Companion Planting

These companion crops are mutually beneficial, promoting overall plant and garden health.

| March/April 2016

  • Alfalfa's tender leaves are surprisingly nutritious, containing the entire spectrum of B vitamins.
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  • In addition to nutrition, beets can be used for soil remediation in the garden, adding minerals like magnesium.
    Photo by iStock
  • Borage, a hardy annual, is said to strengthen the plants it grows alongside.
    Photo by Fotolia
  • Burdock, often considered a weed, is in fact an excellent soil conditioner, and a popular element of both Western and Chinese medicine for its detoxifying properties.
    Photo by Fotolia
  • Red clover does well when planted in apple orchards, attracting wooly aphids away from the trees.
    Photo by iStock
  • Comfrey can be used in homemade skin-care products. In the garden, its tough roots break up hard clay and the large leaves work as a trap crop for slugs.
    Photo by iStock
  • Plants with multi-purpose uses, like yarrow, borage and oats, allow you to maximize your garden's yield and efficiency.
    Photo by Fotolia
  • Elderberry plants work as a compost activator, assisting in breaking down yard and kitchen refuse.
    Photo by iStock
  • Garlic isn't just a savory addition to your kitchen. In the garden, it works as a pest and insect repellent.
    Photo by iStock
  • Oats are not only great to grow for food, they also make an excellent cover crop, suppressing weeds and preventing soil erosion.
    Photo by Fotolia

Usually when we talk about companion planting, we’re talking about planting flowers among our vegetables for their benefits—for example, planting marigolds among the vegetables to help deter aphids. On our farm, we’ve used this concept in our vegetable garden for years with varying levels of success. And while I love the beauty of flowers among my vegetables, a few years in I began to feel like I was missing something.

Companion planting is a crucial part of understanding how plants work, but our understanding of it is usually limited to which insect pests are repelled and which beneficial predators are attracted. In truth, the plant world is much like an iceberg—what we see above the ground is only a tiny portion of the immensity going on below our feet. Once we understand this fact of plant life, there is another aspect of companion planting we can harness.

Uses for Companion Crops

Elderberry-Plum Sauce Recipe
Homemade Oatmeal & Comfrey Facial Scrub
Sweet Pickled Baby Beets Recipe

Beneath the soil plants trade not only nutrients but also phytochemicals (the same plant chemicals we use for medicine). While trying to repopulate our forests with threatened native ginseng and goldenseal, growers with United Plant Savers quickly learned that, for success, they had to plant both together. Without their below-ground partnership, one plant was continually attacked by fungus, the other by animals. By sharing their chemical constituents in the surrounding soil, these plants are able to mutually protect one another. This is a relationship that is harnessed in permaculture, a garden design technique that makes use of the many complex and symbiotic relationships among plants, insects and animals.

Making use of all aspects of companion planting gives us the most vibrant plants and soils. Yet in our current model of companion planting, we often consider one plant the “main crop” (such as a tomato) and the other plant a supporting player (such as cosmos), whose sole purpose is to protect the main crop. The secondary plant is almost a throw-away. What a shame! Why not plant mutually beneficial crops together and give them equal attention in our kitchens or medicine cabinets? I love to grow multitaskers; especially in limited garden space, it’s important to choose only plants we can use in many ways. What follows are a few good examples to get you started.

1. Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

In the Garden: The leaves of yarrow are used in biodynamic agriculture as a compost activator (the English herb writer Lesley Bremness wrote that even a single leaf will speed decomposition). It will also help draw beneficial insects to your garden—when planted in the neighborhood of your favorite plants, yarrow increases the aromatics of everything nearby and attracts predatory wasps, hoverflies and ladybugs. In the fall when the leaves decompose, they become a superb natural fertilizer.

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