Three Sisters, Four Brothers: Growing as a Family for Greater Success


Often, when we plan our garden, we focus solely on what we want to get out of it, or at least that’s what I used to do until I realized the benefits of companion planting. Companion planting is the practice of selectively placing certain plant species near (or away) from one another in order to create a beneficial ecosystem for the crops being grown.

In my garden, this has brought about more flowers and herbs being grown rather than just beans, greens, potatoes, tomatoes … you name it! Companion planting has helped me and many other growers maximize our yield while protecting our crops and adding diversity to our growing space.

Companion planting has been used for thousands of years, perhaps since the beginning of agriculture over 10,000 years ago, as a natural pest repellant, to encourage pollination, and to create a healthy ecosystem for the crops in a natural, sustainable way. Our ancestors perfected this method throughout the agricultural world, tailoring their methods to meet the climate, soil, and crops.

The Three Sisters is a planting method developed by our native ancestors of this land to maximize yield, maintain soil quality, and suppress weeds. They would first plant maize (corn), then pole beans next to the corn, and then squash among the rows. The beans would grow up the maize stalks, using them as support, and the squash would grow along the ground, suppressing any plants that would compete with the maize and beans.

Maize uses a lot of nitrogen, which can deplete soil over time, but the beans add nitrogen to the soil, so the two are a perfect complement. Squash can also take a lot of nutrients but is also benefitted by the beans. While the beans will produce regularly and require frequent care, the corn has a longer growing season, and the squash the longest.

Sequential planting, a topic for another article, is another clever method used by our ancestors to maximize the yield from a single field without overworking the soil.

The Four Brothers is a planting method developed over the years and named by yours truly. It refers to the planting of basil with tomatoes and oregano with peppers. These combinations work to ward off pests, attract pollinators, and add to the flavor of the crops. Sounds wild but it works!

In this way, we can maximize our use of space by mixing the herbs with the fruiting crops. We protect what we grow from pests, save ourselves time and energy on pest control, and get delicious peppers and tomatoes.

In general, aromatic herbs make for good companions to our fruiting crops. Varieties of basil, mint, oregano, thyme, sage, lavender, marjoram, and others are excellent at repelling aphids and other garden pests, and they also attract pollinators. Lemon mint, citronella, and most lemon herbs come with the added benefit of warding off mosquitoes.

Often, we forget about pollination in our fruiting gardens and neglect to place pollinators in our fruiting spaces, or at least I have. One easy way to encourage pollinators is to allow some of the greens and herbs to bolt, flower, and go to seed. Usually seen as a negative thing or sign of neglect, flowers attract bees and butterflies, plain and simple. You won’t have to plant anything extra but neglect to remove or harvest a plant or two before the flowers bloom.

Often, our herbs and greens have shorter growing seasons and will flower while our fruiting crops are just beginning to bloom. This is the perfect time to send in the bees to flutter by as the butterflies buzz about.

Flowers are something new to my garden this year. Never been much for them since they (usually) just look pretty and not much else, ain’t nobody got space for that. However, marigolds, nasturtiums, calendula, borage, yarrow, daisies, bachelor’s button, and hyssop are all beauties that earn their space in a limited garden plot.

Marigolds are a wonder for gardeners. They repel pests, attract pollinators, look pretty, and some are even edible. If you walk through my garden you will see marigolds galore, tucked into various spaces throughout the crops. Be sure to plant them near the cabbage and other brassica family greens (collards, kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts), crops especially vulnerable to aphids and leaf-eating pests, which despise the scent of marigolds.

Trap cropping isn’t just for growing your cannabis but is a technique in which one crop is planted to attract pests and draw them from the key crop. Often nasturtiums are used for this purpose and are planted near the brassica family crops. Brassicas themselves, especially cabbage, have been used for this purpose, as aphids prefer the fresh leaves from cabbage over the tarter mustard greens.

Speaking of mustard, that is my cover/companion crop this year. The strong, bitter leaves discourage most pests and mosquitoes from the garden space as a whole. I regularly cut them down to prevent them from crowding out the crops, and use them to cover the ground as a living and dying mulch that add nutrients to the soil. By letting them go to flower/seed, I also attract pollinators to the garden as a whole. As an added benefit, they obscure my crops from prying eyes and thieving hands.

Calendula, borage, and yarrow come with added medicinal benefits, so be sure to consult your local herbalist for advice on how to use them as you add them to your garden space. Do be warned, these varieties are too large to integrate easily to a garden like marigolds and should be placed along the border.

Catnip is also very good at discouraging pests and attracting the best, along with cats. Cats can be nice in your garden space. They will keep larger pests away, but they will roll all over the catnip and will turn that corner of your garden into a kitty’s Studio 54, if you catch my drift. Catnip should be planted a few feet away from your crops.

It can take a few tries to get the gardening system growing just right, but it’s worth every moment of effort. The lesson of this month: nothing grows in isolation. Let your fruits have some friends and breathe in the herbs to strengthen and lengthen your growing season.


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