The Gentle Art of Raising a
Raising a garden means different things to
different folks. There are those who like to buy every new product on the
market and have the most gleaming weed-proof flower beds; there are also
those who feel that fighting their way through tall stands of grass to reach
the potatoes is the way to go. Then there are those of us who like balance,
and who use techniques such as companion planting and organic pest control.
I learned my gardening from my mother, who in
turn was taught by her father when the word organic was unheard of and
pesticides were yet to come. My grandpa kept a wonderful garden, with rich
dark soil composted from the bedding from his chicken house. He would lay
newspaper in the trenches when planting his potatoes, to help keep
the moisture in. And he would chat up his carrots and beans during his
evening walkabout when he went out to smoke his pipe and enjoy the end of a
When I was courting my husband in the late 1960s, it was
not until our seventh date that I discovered he was a closet gardener after
he had asked me to come and inspect his table dainties, a small but
delicious green marrow. How could I refuse to marry him after such an
Plants that Benefit Each Other
Companion planting is the art of
growing like plants together so they can benefit from each other
nutritionally and keep pests away.
This form of gardening is not new.
Ever since humans have put seeds into the soil, companion planting has been
around. Medieval gardens of old Europe and Britain are a prime example and
the delightful display of mixed vegetables and flowers in a French Jardin is
testament to old knowledge passed down through generations.
Much of the art of companion growing was learned by trial and error. During the 17th
Century, gardening became a passion for the wealthy, who did little of the
work themselves but employed an army of gardeners to work for them. There
was usually an apprentice or gardener’s boy, who would fetch and carry for
the Head Gardener, and slowly, over time, the secrets of what plants to grow
with what and at what time and in what place would be passed on. Written
notes were jealously guarded and the tricks of the trade were never
whispered in the spider web infested corners of the greenhouse.
Over my years of gardening, I have learned that cabbage and Swiss chard grow well
together, but cabbage hates tomatoes. Grow carrots alongside of onions or
leeks and you will keep the carrot fly away. Tomatoes and basil flourish
beside each other, the basil supplying nitrogen to the soil; tomatoes also
like borage, which attracts bees and scares off the tomato worm. Planting
the humble marigold and nasturtium draws the black fly from pole and snap
beans. It also deters the deer who dislike their smell.
Comfrey, an old medicinal plant used to stem bleeding and drunk as a tea to calm the nerves,
helps its neighbors when planted in the garden, but it tends to spread if
unchecked. Not to be left out, the popular garlic will help keep away all
kinds of pests when planted throughout the vegetable garden.
Another good companion plant is the herb dill. Grow this with cabbages and it will
improve the growth and health of that plant. Sunflowers emit chemicals that
discourage weeds and look lovely around the veggies. And there is the old
favorite “The Three Sisters” – corn, beans, and squash. The corn supports
the bean vines, the beans put nitrogen into the soil, and the squash keep
off the weeds with their close covering leaves, which also retain the
moisture in the soil.
When planting tomatoes, there are two methods I’ve
found successful. You can place the tomato plant in a large pot, then plant
the basil beside the tomato. Or if you want them in the garden itself, put
the tomatoes in rows with the basil between each plant. Feed all plants with
organic food, such as a tea made from comfrey or seaweed and remember to
grow tomatoes in a sunny spot in the garden or on the deck.
Karen York’s book The Holistic Gardener has a chapter on Allelopathy, which she describes
as “where plants as well as microorganisms produce substances to gain
advantage in the battle to survive.” She adds, “These Allelochemicals are
part of the construction that both feed and destroy the millions of
microorganisms that reside in the soil.” This basically means that some
plants dislike each other and others help a friend. As an example, you will
never get anything to grow near a sumac tree or a black walnut, because of
the poisons released into the soil by the trees to safeguard their territory
– two examples of plant defense mechanisms.
Keeping the Pests in Check
These days, there is more and more interest
in organic pest control, be it small critters or large. Big business is
getting into the act, but there are cheap and cheerful ways to free the
garden of leaf eaters and fruit stealers.
Most natural gardeners have
their favorite way of getting rid of pests. I have found that soapy water
laced with garlic and bicarbonate of soda keeps the greenfly off my roses.
But the most useful way of dealing with the critters is hand picking. This
method, I hasten to add, really only works if you have a small to medium
size garden. If you are working with several acres, other ways have to be
Not all insects are considered pests. Lacewings love aphids,
mealy bugs, and other things. Ladybugs also enjoy a good meal of aphids.
Both can be bought at garden shops and introduced into your garden. The
black, shiny ground beetle attacks slugs and the hover fly goes for the
I have a friend who is an old hand at smallholding. She
happily picks the slugs and snails from her plants, tosses them into an old
blender and presses the button. She then scatters the remains around her
plants. My stomach is not that strong so I gather the marauders up and toss
them into the small woods behind our land. At one time, I would yell, “Now
see how long it takes you to get back!” But after researching for another
article on snails I have discovered they are deaf – Who knew!
There is also the copper band around the plants method [copper creates a
barrier by giving the slugs and snails a slight electrical shock on
contact], but this can get expensive. The best solution I have come up with
is crushed egg shells mixed with coffee grounds. This sticks to the snails’
and slugs’ undersides and they don’t like the feel of it. If you have the
space, ducks are a great deterrent. They love to peck about when spring
digging is in process and will snap up any unsuspecting slug or snail that
happens to be passing. We kept the Muscovy breed when we lived in England
and they were wonderful at keeping the garden free of the little pests.
Although it’s not specific to gardening, a few years ago, an old
gentleman who lived next door to us gave me this hint. For many of us who
live in rural areas, ants of various kinds are a problem. So he suggested
mixing Borax with cayenne pepper and sprinkling it about the corners of my
front and back doors and along the back wall of the cupboard under the sink,
which are, in my house, usual entry points for the critters. I have since
had very little trouble during ant season. Of course you have to remember to
re-do the mixture regularly, but it was a small price to pay to keep the
For the garden, some much bigger critters can be problematic. The deer
population is quite high here in our corner of British Columbia. Although
classed as urban, we are balanced on the cusp of the rural belt and there is
an old path running through the woods behind us that is used by all the
animals in the area, ranging from the small bobcat to the black bear. When
we first moved out here, we spent much time trying to identify the various
footprints marching through our flower beds and were quite traumatized by
our first sighting of a black bear mooching through our property, snuffing
around the hedges to see what he could find.
For many years we kept an “attack cat.” Tiggy would sit at the window and
growl loudly at the deer as they wandered across the front lawn. Once when
the cat was in the garden a deer chanced his hoof and came onto our
property. Tiggy looked him up and down, stalked over with her tail in the
air, and leapt with all four feet clinging to the animal’s side. The deer
was not amused and left for pastures green, leaving her Ladyship standing on
the property line glaring. With a swish of her tail, she returned to the
kitchen and her usual perch by the window.
We also put human hair into old pop socks [transparent ankle hosiery]
along with carbolic soap and hang it across the deer trail and around the
garden. Another deterrent is to lay down small-holed wire netting across the
entrance of the trail from the woods; the deer do not like stepping on it.
Another way to protect your garden from deer is to plant rosemary and
lavender along the edge of the vegetable beds because deer don’t like the
smell of pungent herbs. Apart from being useful and pretty, the herbs
attract bees and butterflies, which in turn pollinate the plants.
Finally, we tossed the cat’s organic litter around the perimeter of the
garden and this seemed to work well. A word here: We made sure we did not
dig the cat litter into the vegetable garden, as sometimes a cat can pass on
diseases. Also, pregnant women should never handle any kind of soiled cat
litter due to a virus in cat feces called Toxoplasmosis. We scattered the
litter around the boundaries of our land, mainly between the forest and us.
(You could also use human urine too; again, make sure it is deposited away
from edible plants, especially if there is medication in the liquid. This
will also help to deter bears.)
Sadly, the defender of our garden has
gone where all good cats go and we have to rely on other methods to keep the
deer out of our garden.
There are several things to help keep bears off your property. Making
sure all garbage is locked up securely and fallen fruit is picked up is the
first step. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always work, as we found to our
horror one dark night. Awakened by a huge crash, I pulled back the drapes to
see our local Bruin ripping the door off the metal shed and bending it in
half to get at the two garbage bags hidden inside. But we’ve fixed that. I
now tie moth balls to the garbage bags and across the lid of our supposedly
bear-proof compost container and we have not seen him since.
Although we love to see the birds in our garden, they can also be a
problem, pecking holes in the plant leaves and stealing the seeds. I’ve
discovered three things that help keep them off. If you lay black and yellow
plastic tape down along the rows of plants, the birds will stay away because
they mistake it for snakes. Another trick is to tie open plastic grocery
bags to sticks and let the wind fill them. You can also re-use old CDs and
DVDs. Just tie them to a tall stake with string and the twisting and
flashing of the silver discs seems to work wonders.
Sometimes the least expensive solutions are the best ones! There is no
need to spend vast sums of money on your garden. To start with, you need
balanced Ph in the soil. So lime it in the spring and put lots of compost
and leaves into the ground. Some people in some locations grow a winter crop
of clover or rye grass, which they dig in at the beginning of the season.
Rotate crops each year to help prevent disease. And, of course, companion
plant and use natural pest control methods.
If you are a first time gardener, give it a try, even if you only have a
balcony to grow on! We have gardened naturally for thirty years in three
countries, under many climates, and in vastly differing soils. We have found
success by trial and error each time.
Information can easily be found on all aspects of natural gardening by
looking up websites on the Internet, and hunting out books from the library
and secondhand book shops. There is always a local gardener happy to share
his or her secrets for a better crop of whatever you’re growing. It is a
wonderful feeling to know you are gardening in partnership with the humans,
animals, and insects around you. Have fun with your companion growing!
The Holistic Gardener: Creating Spaces for Health and Healing
York (Prentice Hall, 2001)
Great Garden Companions: A Companion-Planting System for a Beautiful,
Chemical-Free Vegetable Garden by Sally Jean Cunningham (Rodale Books, 2000)
Carrots Love Tomatoes: Secrets of Companion Planting for Successful
Gardening by Louise Riotte (Storey Publishing, 1998)
The A - Z of Companion Planting by Jayne Neville (Good Life Press, 2011)
Good Bug Bad Bug: Who’s Who, What They Do, and How to Manage Them
Organically by Jessica Walliser (St. Lynn’s Press, 2008)
Insects and Gardens: In Pursuit of a Garden Ecology by Eric Grissell
(Timber Press, 2006)
Liz and her husband Geoff have lived, worked and gardened in
the UK, USA, and eastern and western Canada. They are “old Greenies” who
have lived recycling, reusing, and natural gardening since the 1960s. They
live on the edge of a small town called Maple Ridge in British Columbia
where Liz works with the Alouette River Management Society. She is also a
painter and a retired aromatherapist. In 2008, theirs was chosen as the
Greenest Household in BC’s Lower Mainland by a Vancouver newspaper. In
addition to this article for Natural Life Magazine, she has written for Back
Home Magazine, The Vancouver Museum, and other publications.