Ever wonder how expert gardeners know how to layout their vegetable gardens? Here’s your guide to companion planting, succession planting, taxonomy, and growing requirements for all your crops with quick references and helpful infographics. Get ready for the biggest harvests you’ve ever had!
I have gotten some great feedback from my raised bed garden design post, but one of the questions that came up was:
“I love the layouts you share on your blog, but my confusion comes from what to plant next to what . . . How much I’m allowed to grow in the certain square foot etc or how can one thing can grow in the cement blocks and not others, etc”
My answer was a ton of research! But then I thought, why not put all that information in one place? Of course, there are entire books on this subject, but it would be nice to have a condensed version handy. Good thing I like making infographics!
Create a mini eco system
There are two main philosophies you can apply to your vegetable garden: Row cropping or intensive cropping.
Row cropping is typically used in large gardens or commercial agriculture. Plants are spaced evenly in long rows with walking paths in-between each row. This makes it easy to use mechanical farming equipment for planting, weeding and harvesting.
I personally believe that intensive cropping is the most productive gardening method. By mimicking mother nature, plants can be laid out in a way that benefits one another and reduces the amount of work required by the gardener. This technique works well in raised bed gardens and permaculture designs.
When to sow and when to harvest?
One of my favorite gardening tools is The Old Farmers Almanac Planting Calculator, you enter your zip code and it will tell you exactly when your last frost date is and when to plant each crop variety in your veggie garden.
This is what I get when I put in my information (the dates are for zone 5b).
As for companion planting, you can find lists of compatible plants, but there is also an overall “trick” to figuring out what goes together. Pair plants that don’t compete with one another for space, light or nutrients. Like a root vegetable paired with a herbaceous or vine plant. You can also consider how one plant might benefit another by providing shade/shelter, accumulating soil nutrients, attracting pollinators or repelling pests.
A great example is the 3 sisters permaculture design – corn, beans and squash. This goes all the way back to early Native American agriculture. Beans are known for pulling nitrogen up from deep in the soil, which benefits the high nutrient needs of the corn. Corn provides a trellis for the beans (or peas) to climb. The squash spreads out with thick foliage that serves as a mulch or ground cover, keeping soil moisture from evaporating in the hot sun and suppressing weeds.
Factors to consider when companion planting
Every gardener’s site contains different challenges. Depending on your area, there will be different garden pests, different soil compositions, different features to the land such as contour and water shed, as well as differing amounts of sun and shade. There is no single solution that will fit every garden so before planning, you need to analyze your site. It may take an entire year to figure out what problems your garden will face, and you can’t find a solution without knowing the problem.
- Repel pests – If tomato hornworms are a problem, then pair your tomato plants up with another plant that repels them such as marigolds or basil. Dill actually attracts wasps, which are a predator for many other insects.
- Attract pollinators – By inviting pollinators like bees, butterflies and hummingbirds into your veggie garden, you are rewarded with much larger fruits and veggies. There are many herbs and flowers that attract pollinators such as: marigold, nasturtium, sage, borage, verbena, oregano, lavender – the list goes on and on.
- Accumulate soil nutrients – Choose plants that help build fertile soil to feed your fruits and vegetables. Some very beneficial plants in this category are: beans/peas, chamomile, lambsquarter, red clover, comfrey and chickweed.
- Provide shade, shelter or trellis – Larger plants can actually protect more vulnerable plants from wind, sun or animals looking for a snack. Corn, amaranth, sunflowers, Jerusalem artichokes, and orach are crops that act as a living trellis when companion planted with vines.
- Space requirements – When deciding what to plant together, you can also consider how different varieties fit together. Garlic and onions are great companions to strawberries because neither compete with one another for space or light. The strong onion smell also helps hide the berries from hungry animals and other pests.
- Sun, water or soil ph requirements – Celery pairs well with the cabbage family because they both have a very high demand for water. However, if celery were placed near squash plants (which like it very warm and dry) both plants would suffer from getting the wrong amount of water. The same principle can be applied for plants that need full sun or partial shade and high or low acidity in the soil.
Knowing Plant Families
I’m not saying every gardener should learn plant taxonomy, but knowing general plant families will help you understand companion planting in a whole new light. Instead of having to memorize each individual plant species, you can make assumptions based on the family that a particular crop belongs to.
There are 11 families, which I have provided very generalized descriptions for.
- The Carrot Family (Umbelliferae) – Most prefer to be direct seeded and prefer a long growing season. (dill, anise, carrots, caraway, celery, chervil, cilantro, cumin, fennel, parsnips, and parsley.)
- The Broccoli Family (Brassicaceae) – Don’t like to be crowded by other plants, they get sweeter with frost. (bok choy, brussels sprouts, broccoli, cabbages, watercress, turnips, collards, mustard, horseradish, kale and radishes.)
- The Mint Family (Lamiaceae) – This family is made up of perennial herbs and flowers. Many (not all) of these are considered invasive and should be kept in a contained area. (basil, catnip, hyssop, lavender, marjoram, white horehound, lemon balm, oregano, rosemary, savory, sage, and thyme.)
- The Allium Family (Liliaceae) – Very cold hardy, most can overwinter in the garden. (garlic, asparagus, chives, scallions, shallots, onions, and leeks.)
- The Nightshade Family (Solanaceae) – Other than potatoes, these are all heat loving plants which should be started from seed indoors and planted outside when risk of frost is well past. Most need support from becoming top-heavy and falling over. (eggplants, bell peppers, potatoes, tobacco, and tomatoes.)
- The Rose Family (Rosaceae) – This family is made up of perennial trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants that flower and produce fruit. (strawberries, cherries, raspberries, blackberries, pears, apples, and plums.)
- The Legumes Family (Fabaceae) – Many in this family can be trellised. They all accumulate nitrogen in the soil. (beans, peas, lentils, peanuts, soy, and fava beans.)
- The Daisy Family (Asteraceae) – Most are sensitive to root disturbance and should be direct seeded. (artichokes, chamomile, sunflower, salsify, marigolds, cardoons, chicory, tarragon, lettuce, dandelions, and salsify.)
- The Squash Family (Cucurbitaceae) – Many can be grown on a trellis and all members of this family prefer full sun, consistent watering and warm temperatures. Members of this family can cross-pollinate, making seed saving difficult. (pumpkins, squash, gourds, cucumbers, and melons.)
- The Beetroot Family (Chenopodiaceae) – Grown in spring and fall, short time to mature, bolt in hot weather. (Swiss chard, lambsquarter, quinoa, beets, and spinach.)
- The Grains Family (Poaceae) – Heavy nitrogen feeders that benefit from interplanting with the legume family. All members of this family are wind pollinated. (corn, rice, wheat, barley, oats, rye, and millet.)
Companion Planting Guide
Planting in succession extends your harvest and makes the most of the space you have available. There are two ways to do this.
1. One way to apply succession planting is to plant crops one after another. When one crop is harvested, you plant a different crop in its place. To do this, you need to look at what the planting and harvest times are for the two crops and make sure the first will be out of the way in time for the second to be planted.
For example, snap peas have a very short growing time, about 4-6 weeks. Since they can tolerate some frost, snap peas can be planted at the beginning of April and harvested at the beginning of May. After harvesting, that space will be open to another crop that doesn’t like frost, such as cucumbers. Since both of these crops are climbing vines, they can planted along the same trellis one after the other, saving valuable garden space.
2. The second way you can apply succession planting is to extend the harvest for one particular crop. You may not want all your lettuce maturing at the same time because it doesn’t stay fresh for more than a week or two. So, instead of planting it all at once, space out planting seeds every few weeks to have a continuous harvest of lettuce all spring (at least until the heat kicks in and it starts to bolt).
Keep at it!
Gardening requires a lot of trial and error. The best way to learn is study and practice. Even after reading this guide, you will still need to tailor your garden solutions to your own climate and physical features of your land.
The next step after planning your garden is planting. Make sure you have everything you need to get started with this Veggie Garden Supply List!
If planting crops year after year seems like too much work, but you still want fresh fruits and vegetables each summer, try a perennial vegetable garden. I have put together a great list of perennial and reseeding plants here.