Companion Planting

vegetable garden planning companion planting

A monoculture is susceptible to disease and pests.

Companion planting is a system of planting a number of different plants together, so that they benefit by from their close association.  Sometimes in agriculture we may see monoculture, an areas where there is a single crop or plant species.  Whether its a plantation, a field or a garden bed or even a row this makes it easier for disease to spread and pests to invade.

In nature its much more common to see a diversity of plants intermingled and growing together.  The plants thrive more from their association with other plants in a number of possible ways.  Companion planting grows a variety of plants together for some mutual benefit.

Unfortunately there is a lot of myth and misunderstanding about companion planting. Companion planting is often portrayed like a Hollywood romance, an instant attraction followed by happily ever after. A helpful rule to remember is that companion planting will help solve a problem ONLY if that problem exists.  The problems that need solving are dependent upon the local conditions, and so the effectiveness of companion planting will vary as much as the relevant local conditions vary.  The problems of Europe may be no-existent in the US., the pests of North America may be absent from Australia. The soil conditions of one neighbourhood may be completely different to those of the next village. The conditions of shade, competition and previous use may be completely different in one back yard to that next door.

Occasionally plants that benefit each other in one situation may have the opposite effect in another.

Companion Planting and Nutrition

vegetable garden planning companion planting

Companion Planting involves a diversity of plants in one bed

One way that some plants can support others is by providing some nutritional element that is needed.  Most commonly nitrogen fixing plants provide support for root crops and heavy feeders.  Deep rooted plants can absorb a variety of nutrients from deep down in the soil, and make them available to other plants when leaves die back or are added to compost.

Companion Planting and Pests

If a disease or pest is present in the local environment, whether that is country, region or garden bed companion planting may help.  Pests find their target plants in a number of ways the action of the companion plants needs is related to this process.

Pests and diseases in the soil will be affected by plants that releasing a chemical into the soil that kills or repel that pest.  Feeding insects may identify their host plants by scent, in which case a plant that produces a masking odour would be a good solution.  Other insects identify their food by sight, so disguising their shape with plants of a totally different silhouette will confuse the miniature munchers.

Attracting predators that eat your garden pests is another way that companion planting can benefit your veggie patch.  Alternatively luring pest away from your vegetables to an alternative planted as a “trap crop” can be a solution.  I have heard of weeds being used in orchards and vineyards for this purpose.

Companion Planting for other reasons

Other reasons for companion plating are to attract pollinators, create a micro-climate, or even just the convenience of having plants with similar water and nutritional requirements together.  Sometimes plating some crops together can even improve the flavour of crops on your plate.

Allopathy or Competition Between Plants

Some plants actually inhibit the growth of other plants by competing for the same resources, or by creating an incompatible environment such as a growth inhibitor or making the soil too rich for a particular plant.  Inhibiting the invasion of your vegetable plot by weeds and grass is advantageous, but inhibiting the growth of one vegetable by another is something you will want to avoid.

Companion Planting in Practice

Overall multiple plants grown together in the same garden bed can improve yields and crop quality.  Best results are obtained by developing your understanding of companion planting in your plot as your gardening experience grows.  Experimentation and record keeping will build knowledge, and that is one of the roles of this website.

How I assembled the soil for my raised beds

raised vegetable garden beds

Weeds and leaves heaped in the garden bed form the first layer

When it comes to actually filling the raised garden beds, sometimes the ideal gives way to other pressures.    Ideally I would build the raised bed frame then fill it with varied layers of nitrogen rich and carbon rich.  Sprinkle on activators such as blood and bone and add trace elements through rock dusts.  I would let it sit for several months and encourage the chooks to turn it mixing it more and adding a little extra chicken manure.

Because of the circumstances of my move I found myself building garden bed when we were already half way through spring.  I needed to build some beds fast, and get some veggies in if I was to have anything growing this summer.  I also had little spare cash after the expense of moving, so buying material in was mostly out of the question.

Adding layers of nitrogen and carbon materials

raised vegetable garden beds

The bed is half full before I line the walls with plastic.

I gathered what I had available, used straw, grass clipping, weeds, dried leaves, some rich top soil which also contained lots of tree bark (not ideal), kitchen scraps.  I layered and mixed it as well as possible, watering it as I went.  I did buy a coir block and added that to one of the beds.  It did take me some time to gather all this, I started collecting and layering the material before I had even built the frames, and the first bed got a considerable amount of rain during the process.

When a raised vegetable garden bed is made out of treated or unknown timber it is important to line it with plastic.  Otherwise the poison used to treat the timber will leach into the soil and be pick up by your vegetables.  But this can be a fiddly business, especially if there is any wind about.  I find it useful to have some material already in the bed to hold the plastic in place as I line the walls of the bed.

Adding a plastic lining for the walls.

raised vegetable garden beds

Plastic prevents chemicals used to treat timber from leaching into the soil.

Initially, whilst still constructing the walls I had heaped material in the centre. When I was ready to line the frame I spread it out and added straw, until it was about half way up the walls.  I pushed the straw back just far enough to line the walls with plastic, where possible I wrapped the plastic around the top piece of wood or anchored it behind a post.  In this way I was able to hold the plastic in place with one hand and push the straw back onto it with the other.  After that I added a layer of nitrogen rich grass clippings.

One handy trick if you wish to plant into a bed that is not ready is to make a hole, fill it with compost and plant your seedlings into that.  Similarly a layer of compost on the top to plant your seeds into works well.  It takes several weeks for the seeds to germinate and the roots to grow beyond the compost, by which stage the soil components have broken down further.  But I hadn’t been here long enough to have any compost.

Purchased vegetable garden soil as the top layer is my compromise.

There was only one option left if I was going to get anything growing this season.  I had to buy in some top soil.  Now I know that purchased “soil” is inferior quality, but vegetable soil is generally better than the top soil that they sell, which is usually full of household garbage.   One cubic meter of soil doesn’t go very far in raised garden beds, but if its only 20cm deep it should cover 5 square meters.

raised vegetable garden beds

Tuck the plastic in so that it doesn't become a home for slugs and snails. It looks much better too.

I bought some “vegetable garden soil” which turned out to be a mixture of cow manure, sand, composted bark and who knows what else.  The cow manure should help things along a bit.  As I moved it I discovered not only does it contain lumps of bark, but lots of stones as well.  I filled the top of the beds with this purchased soil.

The final touch was to hide the plastic that was showing at the top edges, not only is it unattractive, it will harbour slugs and snails which would come out at night and eat my precious seedlings.  My raised beds were complete.

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Garden soil for raised vegetable beds

raised vegetable garden beds

Dried leaves and weeds are good composting materials

When it comes to filling the garden bed many people immediately think about buying soil and having it trucked in, but the truth is that it is the inferior option.  The main reason that raised garden beds can grow so more vegetables in the space than in-ground beds is that they are filled with compost rather than soil.

The principle of no-dig gardens is to fill the raised bed with layers of material then leave them for three months to breakdown into  a rich growing medium for the vegetables.  There are a couple of main differences to making compost, the first is that the material is not normally turned, to compensate for this layers of material are quite thin to allow the necessary interaction between the ingredients. The second difference is that the material is often not deep enough to reach the temperatures required for true compost.

 Ingredients for the growing medium

The main categories of materials used in this soil creation process are usually referred to as ‘carbon’, ‘nitrogen’, ‘minerals’ and ‘water’.  By carbon we mean plant materials which contain a high percentage of carbon in their structure, similarly ‘nitrogen’ refers to plant materials that are rich in nitrogen.  Minerals are derived from rocks and are present in small quantities, the most important being lime which is used to regulate the pH level of the bed.  The correct amount of water is needed for the microbes to work their magic on the mixture and turn it into our growing medium.

Carbon materials are brown

Brown plant materials are generally high in carbon, but be aware that many of them take far too long to decompose to be used in the vegetable garden.  Anything that is closely related to wood should be shredded, combined with some very high nitrogen products and composted for at least a year.  Good materials for your no-dig garden bed include the following:

  • straw
  • autumn leaves
  • newspaper (soak and use in small quantities)
  • dry grass clippings
  • wood ash
  • brown hay
  • peanut shells
  • peat moss  (soak and use in small quantities)
  • dried weeds
  • shredded corn cobs
  • sugar cane mulch

Nitrogen materials are soft and brightly coloured

Fresh plant materials are generally high in nitrogen, they are often green but other colours are common too, occasionally they are even brown.  As these materials dry out the nitrogen is often lost with the moisture.  There is a wider variety of materials high in nitrogen available and using a wide variety will increase your success.

  • green leaves
  • green grass clippings
  • fresh weeds
  • kitchen scraps
  • manures
  • blood and bone
  • hair
  • feathers
  • tea leaves
  • coffee grounds
  • seaweed
  • fish meal

 Minerals and other ingredients for compost

These materials are added in small quantities and do not contribute to the bulk of the garden bed, they add trace elements.  Generally these are not materials that you will have around the house and garden, and if your budget or source does not stretch to these additives don’t let that hold you up. They can be added as top dressing when you have them available.

The most common mineral materials are these

  • gypsum (increase calcium, breaks up clay)
  • dolomite ( increase alkalinity, calcium and magnesium)
  • rock dust (add iron, boron, chlorine, cobalt, copper manganese, copper, zinc and molybdenum)
  • potash (increase potassium)
  • sulphur (increase acidity)
  • Epsom salts ( increase magnesium)
  • egg shells (calcium)

Water

Most people fail to add enough water to their garden bed and this can hold up decomposition of the material for months.  You should be able to squeeze a few drops of water out of a handful compost materials with your fist.  Whilst good soaking rain is the best means of watering your garden bed, adding water to each layer as you apply it will help get the process started.

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Constructing raised beds from recycled timber

The financially cheapest option for building raised garden beds is to use recycled materials.  Of course its much more time consuming than other methods.

Step 1: Collect your materials

raised vegetable garden beds raised garden bed plans

Sleepers, wooden beams, stakes and a star picke

Accumulating sufficient timber could be quite time consuming, some places to look for resources would include people doing renovations, leftover timber from other projects, the tip, items put on the kerb for council clean up or freecycle.

Sort your timber and stack it near the site of your vegetable garden.

Step 2: Prepare the site for the raised bed

Decide the size and position of your garden bed.  Factors that affect size include the timber that you have on hand and the site itself.  I have some frames from a previous project that I am going to use on my bed to protect the seedlings from domestic and wild birds, so the width of the beds are determined by that factor.   And since I have some recycled sleepers for the sides they will determine the length.  Cutting the sleepers is not a task that I want to consider at this stage.

Once I placed the sleepers in position the uneven nature of the ground in that area, and the slope were highlighted.  I used a spade to dig a flat channel where the sleepers and planks will be placed, the width of the spade.  I cheated a bit by putting some stones under one corner so that I didn’t have to dig quite so much.  The idea was to get the bed approximately level because water will run down hill and not soak in evenly, it will also wash soil and seeds down hill with it.

Some people will measure up when making a raised garden bed to ensure the result is perfectly square, but this is for aesthetics rather than function. Using recycled timbers means that they are not straight, and they are not flat, and when I dug the channels to get the sleeper more level I moved away from the original position.  I saw no advantage in doing twice the digging, the veggies certainly don’t mind!

 Step 3: Secure the sides of the frame

raised vegetable garden beds raised garden bed plans

Wooden stakes securing the sides of the garden bed

Using sleepers they are able to stand on their side unsupported, but they would become unstable and likely to get knocked over as the sides rise.  When the garden is filled the weight of the soil will prevent the sides from falling inwards, so the sleepers just need to be stabilised from the outside.

The simplest method didn’t require me to drill holes for screws and nail, nor use any building skill at all.  I simply used stakes and star pickets that are about 60mm long, and banged them into the ground on the outside of the sleepers; 2 per side.

The side walls of the beds that I made were made of recycled timber not wide enough to stand on the side unaided, but resting against the sleepers on the inside and with stakes holding them up on the outside they are quite secure.  It was at this point that I measured and cut the wood for the sides that way the length matched for the positioned sleepers rather than a predetermined size.

Step 4: Finally, Raise the rest of the sides.

raised vegetable garden beds raised garden bed plans

The sides of the garden bed are raised once the securing stakes are in place

Once the stakes or start pickets were in place the remaining sleepers and beams were put in place.  I have built beds that are currently 2 sleepers deep, the sides had more pieces of wood to reach the same height, as they were not the same width as the beams.

For the second bed I didn’t have as many sleepers, and not quite enough wooden beams to achieve the same height all around.  This is the nature of a bed using recycled materials, and I may have to leave this end of the bed not as full until I find another beam.

 Filling the beds.

raised vegetable garden beds raised garden bed plans

A raised garden bed built from recycled materials can work well.

Once the raised garden bed frames have been constructed, filling them with soil and compost is the next stage.  I will cover this in the next article.

It is important to be aware that treated and recycled timber may contain poisons to preserve the timber.  This poison can leach into the soil and be absorbed by the vegetables. Line the frame with plastic so that the chemicals stay out of your food.

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A first step in garden planning

Vegetable Garden Planning

vegetable garden planning

Vegetable garden planning

The first step in any type of garden planning particularly when planning for a vegetable garden is to look at the existing situation and find the best spot for the garden.  There are a number of things to consider when assessing the yard and deciding on the design and location of your new vegetable garden.

  • interference with other backyard activities
  • sunlight and shade
  • water
  • competition from tree roots
  • windbreak
  • protection from pets and wildlife
  • ease of access from the kitchen
  • climate and micro-climates
  • slope
  • vertical space
  • sufficient depth of soil (15 to 30 cm / 6 to 12 inches)
  • how much you want to grow

As a generalisation vegetables need at least 6 hours of sun each day, sunlight is particularly important in cool and temperature climates. Without sun, the fruits will not ripen and the plants will be stressed. There are a some crops that can survive in light shade or less sun, such as lettuce and other greens, broccoli and cole crops (that is the cabbage family).  And in warmer climates plants don’t need quite as many hours of sunlight.

If you don’t have a spot of full sun then the range of vegetables will be greatly reduced. One option to consider is growing your veggies in pots that can be moved as the angle of the sun changes during the year. Even if you can’t grow a wide range of vegetables, some home grown salad leaves and herbs will still be a delight on the table.

My Backyard

The house block runs east-west, and slopes slightly to the north west, resulting in lots of sun and little shade in the backyard, with no problem trees.  Despite the fact that I live in an area of moderately steep hills, the back-yard is almost flat, so the slope will not make gardening difficult, but it does add slightly to the sun exposure.  Please don’t get confused if you live in the northern hemisphere, you will need a south facing slope.

I have chickens which produce eggs and manure (well there is only one now, but she will soon have some friends).  One of the problems I have had in the past is that the hens would find the veggie garden too tempting and would dig up my crops at the most inconvenient time.  Now many people will cage their chickens to allow their  vegetables to free-range in the yard.  But I have always found that its the hens that get bored, need exercise, and generally benefit from being free-range, where as vegetables don’t mind being in a cage at all.

vegetable garden planning

Vegetable garden planning - first assess the backyardVegetable garden planning

This garden has a conveniently fenced area that would be a perfect site for my new vegetable patch.  I envisage a row of raised vegetable garden beds along the inside of the fence.  The fence could be used to support some tall or climbing plants.   Perhaps also a passion fruit vine running along part of it.  One end does have a couple of bushes and a fence that shade that section of the yard, making it a less appropriate site for the vegetable beds.

The fenced area is also the best place for the chickens, so I am consdiering dividing the area so that the chickens can take advantage of the shade and protection of the bushes, whilst the veggies have the sunny end of the area.  Having both the vegetables and the chickens in the fenced off area leaves the other half of the yard for other activities like bar-be-ques, playing children and dogs.

vegetable garden planning

The concrete slab is in the prime spot for the vegetable garden

One obstacle of the fenced area is that it contains a large concrete slab, where there was once a garage.  The slab is turning out to be even larger than I first thought, but I am not deterred by that.  The slab itself can be used for plants in containers, some sort of greenhouse or a work table.  Even if I don’t use it for those purposes, a raised bed can work well on a slab as long as there is a system for drainage from the bottom.  After all a raised vegetable garden bed is no different to a plant pot with the bottom removed.

The Front Yard

vegetable garden planning

Shade is an important factor in locating the vegetable garden

Along the front of the house are some concrete raised beds, that already contain a few herbs and strawberries as a legacy of the previous gardener. There is even a grapevine which grow up the balustrade of the front steps.  Between the house and the trees these beds don’t get enough sun for vegetables, but the herbs are doing well. The grapes apparently have not produced decent fruit, so I will see if some t.l.c. will make any difference.

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Why Use Raised Vegetable Garden Beds?

raised vegetable garden beds

Raised Vegetable Garden Beds

Raised vegetable garden beds are raised above ground level with some sort of frame. Common materials for the frame are wood, bricks, corrugated iron, stone and concrete. This sort of garden bed is ideal for back-yards and other gardens that are tended by hand, but probably inappropriate for 1000 acre farms that are tended by large farm machinery.

There are many reasons for using raised garden beds here are the main ones for me.

No-dig Gardening

The very first veggie garden I remember starting was when I was 8 years old. There was a semicircular mound at one edge of the garden, and I begged my father to be allowed to use it as a veggie garden. Eventually he gave in.

The first step of course was to dig up the grass, which I started with enthusiasm. But I found that the job was long and hard. I ran out of enthusiasm long before the job was completed, unfortunately the disinterest continued long past the digging process. In the end someone else finished the digging for me; the final result was a semi-circular garden that was no longer a mound. I kept my disappointment about this aspect to myself, but I am sure it added to my disenchantment with the whole process of gardening.

More recently I had an elderly neighbour who was an expert gardener. Despite being disabled he managed to till his vegetable plots to a fine, even texture, like sifted flour. I don’t even know how to do that, let alone have that kind of stamina. So when I heard about no-dig gardening I realised this was the method for me.

Raised vegetable garden beds are the ideal situation for no-dig gardening. You simply build or place a frame on the ground and fill it with a suitable growing medium, and your garden is ready to grow.

Scientific reasons for Raised Vegetable Garden Beds.

Digging damages soil structure. Soil structure is the arrangement of the soil particles and the spaces between them. Naturally soil form layers with more organic material at the top, and firmer rock based elements, like sand and clay, in the subsoil. The spaces between the soil particles are created by worms and other creatures that live in the soil and they allow for water and oxygen to be available to the plants, as well as room for root growth. Digging and tilling destroy the layers and the worm tunnels.

Raised garden beds can be warmer than vegetable plots in the ground. If the frame is constructed from material that absorbs heat, such as metal or bricks, they will absorb extra warm from the sun warming the soil more quickly. If the frame is made of insulating materials such as wood, it will help the soil retain heat over-night instead of losing it to the neighbouring ground.

Australian soil quality is very low, and here in the Blue Mountains top soil very thin, previous gardens I’ve had here had no more than 3mm (1/8 inch) of top soil. Not enough for veggies! Raised beds are filled with a rich growing medium, ideal for the high demands of food production. The bed walls also ensure that precious compost and soil is retained within the garden bed itself and not spread across paths and other areas.

Raised beds allow for a clear distinction of paths from bed areas. Walking on gardens can compact the soil and so inhibit the growth of plants. By surrounding small raised beds with designated paths there is no temptation to walk of the growing areas.

Raised Garden Beds provide easy access

Finally raised garden beds make it easier to reach the plants. Less bending down for access means less damage to the gardener’s back and knees. Garden beds can be raised high enough for access to people in a wheel chair, although I don’t need this provision.

My Raised Vegetable Garden Beds

My intention is to try beds of different heights to compare the outcome and find the optimal depth for this location. I will also try different structural components and different growing mediums. It won’t be a fully controlled comparison, but I hope to have some results that give enough information to improve the production of my raised vegetable garden beds next year.

 

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