Is companion planting a good way to grow more organic vegetables? Or is it a mare’s nest of myth and hearsay? So different are everyone’s organic gardens that it can be either of these things. But one proven and sophisticated example of companion planting is the Ayurvedic garden, popular in Nepal, India and adjacent lands. It offers a proven way to grow a lazy garden organically without chemical pesticides.
Evolved from ancient medical lore, it combines a massive variety of plants in one plot, each plant precisely matched to support the other and to baffle or repel insects. Because aphids prefer lush green foliage, vulnerable crops like beans are interplanted with purple, red or blue crops such as red cabbage, red kale, purple sprouting broccoli, rhubarb or ruby chard.
Likewise, caterpillars love soft-leaved plants but dislike tough foliage. So growing tomato, kale, beans and cucurbits among brassica deters caterpillars, and the brassica confuses beatles and other bugs that seek out the tougher crops.
Tall sun-loving plants like tomatoes, sweet corn, aubergine and peppers are intercropped with cool-loving lettuces to maximise use of space while every odd hole is filled with leeks, carrots and other root vegetables which exploit the deeper soil levels. Aromatic herbs, onions and chives are grouped around the bed as a further pest barrier.
While any one combination might give little protection or increase in yield (or so research suggests), a vast diversity like this – planted together in zigzag rows or at random intervals – has cumulative impact, it’s said. Formal crop rotation is unnecessary because each plant when pulled is instantly replaced by another of a different family. And in the long Asian growing season, major food crops can often be raised successively in the same space year round.
Introducing an even simpler style of Ayurvedic gardening – YIN
I love the Ayurvedic system as a model of natural gardening… but I’d loathe the purgatory of hand-weeding it. So could this controlled jungle be made labour-free? A clue lies in another Asian country, Japan, home of the fabled no-dig system of Masanobu Fukuoka. This Buddhist visionary showed that rye and barley seed, wrapped in clay pellets, can be broadcast-sown among rice while it is still growing.
Contrary to belief, much rice – ‘wild’ rice apart – is not grown in water. When the rice is harvested, its stems are spread among the seedling grains as a mulch. As the grains mature, rice is hand-sown among them. When the grain is harvested, its stems are cut and spread as a mulch. As the rice matures, rye and barley are sown again.
And so it goes, in a perpetual cycle – one crop maturing as another is started among it. The roots are left to rot in the soil, the mulch from each crop retains moisture so watering is usually unnecessary, and the soil’s fertility renews itself.
It’s deceptively simple. But it took Fukuoka 30 years to perfect it and his early experiments wiped out his farm, twice. Suppose we combine both these Asian methods, and add a touch of Western bravura? And produced the ideal scheme for a low maintenance organic garden?
Introducing Yeoman’s Improved No-dig system (YIN).
In February under cloches, we’d plant broad beans intercropped with radishes, pak choy, aragula (rocket), spinach, early lettuce, peas and carrots. For mulch, we’d use several sheets of newspaper held down with compost and cut holes or slits in it for the seeds or transplants.
By late May, the peas will have grown up the beans and both can be harvested. Any immature pods can be eaten whole like mangetout and the still-growing tips used fresh in salads. As in the Fukuoka method, we leave the roots in the soil and lay back the cut bean and pea stems plus any unwanted spinach foliage as a mulch. Sweet corn transplants are then put in.
Among them we drop French beans (Phaseolus vulgaris, the ‘common’ bean), maincrop carrots and other roots, plus more lettuce. We ring the plot with transplants of calendula, tagetes, nasturtiums, basil, carraway and other spicy annual herbs. At the end of the rows go space-hogging courgettes, pumpkins and other squash.
In September, all is harvested. We leave the roots in the soil, chop the stems and leaves and lay them back as mulch. In go our winter brassica. Or we might sow Chinese leaves, land cress and aragula (rocket), very thickly, as edible green manures. This is cut in February and laid back as a mulch, whereupon the cycle begins again.
No more, must we lug those stems and leaves to a compost bin, turn it laboriously then haul the wretched stuff back where it came from. Nature doesn’t do that! And left where it falls, the mulch should suppress most annual weeds. (All parts of a diseased or suspect plant should be taken up and burnt, of course.)
This simplified version of Ayruvedic gardening not only suppresses weeds and is ecologically efficient. It also saves time and labour!