Inter-cropping is when you have two or more different vegetables growing in the same shared piece of ground, or in the same row, providing diversification. When planting fast growing and slow growing vegetables together, it’s a marvelous method to generate and ultimately harvest a wide variety of home-grown healthy food.
- you have too many plants.
- you don’t have enough space.
- you become frustrated.
If you have a garden like mine, it’s a mix of mature and not quite mature permanent plants, both trees and bushes. When we bought my family’s place, it was in need of a LOT of work, both on the house, and the land. We had some mature trees and bushes on the property, and some were long dead and needed clearing away. We did some careful planning and reckless buying at plant nurseries, and before we knew it, we found ourselves loaded up with fruit bushes of all types.
When fruit bushes are purchased in pots, they are basically easy enough to move around, from nursery to the back of a car or truck. They will NOT remain that size, if planted correctly, and grown well. So when you plant them in the desired space, make SURE to pay attention that each one of them gets proper placement. When these are finally planted, the appearance overall is that there is a plethora of extra space. This actually is correct. This is where we engage in the bold act of mixed-use plantings!
Now is an appropriate time to engage in research. I always consult my book “Carrots Love Tomatoes” by Louise Riotte. It’s a revelation of which plants grow well together, and which don’t. It’s like this. Some plants take nutrients away from the soil and some put nutrients back in.
For example, some plants are referred to as heavy feeders, meaning what they take out of the soil, and some are light feeders, meaning they consume very sparingly of the soil’s nutrients. Light feeders are quick growing vegetables like lettuce, radishes, spinach, celery, cabbage, kale, chard, collards, and other greens. Planting these every week or two means fresh food comes in for a good while. And a REAL benefit of inter planted crops is that the closer they grow to each other as they fill out in size, also means that they block opportunities for those dratted weeds to take hold.
For my purposes, I planted tomatoes, which are small in the beginning, and which will grow to a much larger size by the end of the growing season. In between the beginning planting and harvest time, there’s plenty of sunlight and rain and space and time to grow quick crops of fast growing vegetables; like radishes and lettuce; in the dirt in between each tomato plant. The tomatoes are considered heavy feeders, and the radishes and lettuces are considered light feeders. Get it? No harm done to either plants’ health and production, and you get a double crop in the same space originally intended for one.
In areas where we combine both perennials (permanent), fruit and annual (one year only) vegetables (this includes edible flowers), its possible to have glorious inter-plantings that do incredibly well. If the soil is rich enough, watered enough, heavily composted enough in its beginning stages, and amply fertilized (I only use organic seaweed foliar spray fertilizer, which works wonders), tremendous amounts of food production can be achieved.
Really excellent companions are asparagus with tomatoes, beans with carrots or summer savory, beets with onion or kohlrabi, cabbage with aromatic plants, or potatoes or celery or carrots , or turnips with peas. There are also plants that dislike each other. For example, do not plant beans with onions, garlic or gladiolus, beets with pole beans, cabbage with strawberries, tomatoes or pole beans, or potatoes with pumpkins, squash, cucumber, sunflower, tomato or raspberry. All of these plants, it should be noted, are heavy feeders.
This year my blueberry bushes are finally large enough to bear a modest amount of fruit, even though they get nibbled down severely throughout the winter months by my ever-so-helpful bunny friends. In the spaces between these berries, I have flowers planted, so as to attract pollinators, and bush type cucumbers and green zucchini squash. By the way, remember to plant different types of blueberry bushes next to each other, they require this for pollination purposes, otherwise all your efforts will be for naught.
When I plant, or decorate my home, I’m cursed with the behavior of “Horror Vaccui”, which is Latin for “Fear of an empty space”, for real. I force myself to adhere to the recommended spacing of plants. As each bush and vegetable grows in grace and beauty, I like to stick a couple of clay pots on their sides underneath a bunch of the shadier plants, (big leafy gourds and squash are good candidates) and make it a nice home for frogs or toads. Throw a hand full of dirt or mulch in there for them to sit upon. Not too much, you want to give them room to hang out in there and watch you work, where they will undoubtedly croak and chirp, which is their way of announcing to the world, “boy, do I have a great gardener working for me!” But you may say to yourself “I don’t have frogs or toads in my garden.” Well, I’m betting you do. Those critters like to stay well hidden. This helps to avoid getting squished underneath our big clumsy feet, live out what ever sort of quiet ninja stealth mode insect attack toad fantasies they have, and to be better able to consume lots of lovely bugs that bother our garden, and aggravate us garden types.
As I write this, we approach July. It is still not too late to plant a garden. Indeed, this is when I usually plant late tomatoes and especially green beans, as July is the month of heaviest growth. The temperatures are great for growing, the rain is generally plentiful, and weeds like to stay gone when you rip them out. My raspberries are inter-planted with geraniums and sunflowers and cucumbers, my strawberries are inter-planted with okra and lilies. This way each planted space is continually producing something, fruit or vegetables or blossoms producing pollen. The overall effect is one of order and chaos, duty and beauty. As you inspect, you will notice the beautiful curving vines of cucumbers growing so well inter-planted in the tall straight lines of sunflowers.
This mindset is also one of the laws behind producing traditional Pennsylvania Dutch Art. A straight line (masculine) is a line of duty, a curved line (feminine) is a line of beauty. This is also a behavior and mindset used to design Pennsylvania Dutch Hexes, as well as Quilts. Many traditional patterns are based on the actual garden plans of each quilt artist; reds next to purples, yellows next to greens and browns, blues next to oranges. It’s not hard to discern the patterns and meanings and overall beauty that influenced each work of art, whether it is your garden, your Hex art, or your quilt.