Cultivating a Lively Mix in the 
Vegetable Garden

By: Emily Murphy
Emily Murphy

Emily Murphy is an organic gardener, photographer, cook, and creator of the blog, Pass The Pistil. She is dedicated to…

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A rambunctious planting of colorful zinnias and cherry tomatoes mixed together in the vegetable garden.  Photo: Emily Murphy

A rambunctious planting of colorful zinnias and cherry tomatoes mixed together in the vegetable garden. Photo: Emily Murphy

There’s a certain lovely order within chaos. When a garden is designed as a slice of life, following nature’s lead, we discover a complex richness of diversity and all it has to offer. The initial sense of chaos falls away and patterns emerge to reveal a healthy, living system filled with different kinds of plants keeping company with a mix of bugs (good ones and bad ones); it’s a day in the life of a garden. You’ll also find a variety of birds and most likely a host of creatures you don’t recognize—they’re all a part of the puzzle and equally important, too.

Planting with diversity in mind reduces the need to fend off pests and rotate crops, naturally improving plants’ ability to work together. It doesn’t mean we have to give up a tidy garden, planting in rows, or even triangles (my preferred planting style), but simply consider how different crops can share space. Utilizing concepts from interplanting and companion planting builds diversity—and wildness—into the smallest of gardens.

Calendula is a valuable year-round player in a lively landscape as these easy-to-grow annuals bloom in almost every month of the year in 
a mild climate. The flowers provide nectar and pollen for pollinators, and a bountiful harvest of colorful, edible petals that may be used fresh or dried at the table. The petals have anti-inflammatory properties and are a popular ingredient in soothing herbal concoctions, and produce a golden hued natural dye.  Photo: Emily Murphy

Calendula is a valuable year-round player in a lively landscape as these easy-to-grow annuals bloom in almost every month of the year in 
a mild climate. The flowers provide nectar and pollen for pollinators, and a bountiful harvest of colorful, edible petals that may be used fresh or dried at the table. The petals have anti-inflammatory properties and are a popular ingredient in soothing herbal concoctions, and produce a golden hued natural dye. Photo: Emily Murphy

Interplanting and Companion Planting

Interplanting means growing plants with different growth habits and maturation times side-by-side to increase yield. This practice promotes covering the ground with crops we look forward to rather than crops we don’t—like weeds! And by borrowing ideas from companion planting, we can come up with a fabulous recipe for a thriving garden that is filled with a gorgeous clamor of diversity.

What’s wonderful about this approach is that we can build diversity into our gardens in nearly any season. This includes mid to late summer. Grow a round of short season bush beans like ‘Early Contender’ or snap peas beneath sunflowers to naturally fix nitrogen in the soil. Interplant calendulas and onions with other vegetables to confuse pests like carrots flies and cabbage white butterflies, throwing them off the scent of their preferred host plants. Calendulas overwinter and continue to flower through winter in USDA hardiness zones 7 and warmer, and onions there are happy to grow into the cooler months of fall and winter. Plant nasturtiums in the corners of beds or plots to lure aphids away from your more prized edibles, and embrace chaos. (Or at least a little bit of chaos.) Like calendulas, nasturtiums are another worthy companion plant that doubles as an edible flower, though unlike calendula, every bit is edible—even their seed pods.

Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), a delicious herbal tea plant with a licorice flavor, and zinnia.  Photo: West Cliff Creative

Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), a delicious herbal tea plant with a licorice flavor, and zinnia. Photo: West Cliff Creative

As an example of interplanting, try growing lettuces below your tomatoes, or plant quick growing crops like radishes next to your carrots. Lettuces appreciate the mid-summer shade offered by tomatoes and their shallow root systems won’t interfere with the deeper roots of tomatoes. In the meantime, the quicker germinating sprouts of radishes will remind you where the carrots are sown and they’ll be harvested and eaten long before the carrots are ready. This works especially well with late season plantings; both radishes and carrots do well in cooler temperatures and carrots taste better after a good frost, so leave them in well into fall for the best flavor.

Grow What You Love, 12 Food Families to Change Your Life, by Emily Murphy. 2018 Firefly Books Ltd.

Grow What You Love, 12 Food Families to Change Your Life, by Emily Murphy. 2018 Firefly Books Ltd.

Soon you’ll find that cultivating diversity in your garden with companion planting makes caring for it easier and you get flowers!