Do you ever feel frustrated when pest insects damage your plants? Wish your kitchen garden was more productive? You’re not alone! Even the healthiest gardens struggle with a few ‘unwelcome visitors’ at times.

Design Tips for a Productive Kitchen Garden

 

If you have limited space for your food garden, then losing precious crops, can be even more disheartening.

The good news is there are design strategies you can use to:

  1. Maximise your space;
  2. Minimise pest insects;
  3. Enhance the beauty; and
  4. Even improve some of your harvests.

Design Tips for a Productive Kitchen Garden

Avoid this Common Design Mistake

 

Are you growing your kitchen garden organically? Are you building a healthy living soil? Then you are on the right track! However, some kitchen gardeners fall into the trap of making a very common mistake.

Do you plant the SAME vegetables in neat rows? No doubt this looks attractive! However, it can also signal the ‘green light’ to pest insects. How? Many pest insects find their favourite foods by sight and smell. Many flying insects identify their preferred tucker by the shape and scent of the plant leaves.

 

Intensively grouping the same vegetables together in one pot or patch, concentrates the visual and scent signals.

Intensively grouping the same vegetables together in one pot or patch, concentrates the visual and scent signals.

 

This can be an irresistible invitation for pest insects to make a beeline to your garden. A ‘Fly Thru’ self-serve restaurant with a big “WELCOME” sign! If you want less pests, then stop planting the same vegetables in rows!

 

The majority of commercial farmers plant in high concentrations of the same crop, so they can harvest at the same time.

The majority of commercial farmers plant in high concentrations of the same crop, so they can harvest at the same time.

 

However, as urban gardeners, we want a continual small harvest week after week. We want a variety of foods.

 

If you plant 10 lettuces in a row, that all mature in the same week, your family had better LOVE salads!

If you plant 10 lettuces in a row, that all mature in the same week, your family had better LOVE salads!

 

“Designing for small, continual harvests makes sense for home gardeners.” – Anne Gibson

 

Food for Thought

 

If you’ve walked in the rainforest or bush, stop and think about this. Have you ever seen neat ROWS of one species growing naturally?

 

Surrounding support species are part of an integrated and healthy ecosystem, and soil is never left bare for long.

Surrounding support species are part of an integrated and healthy ecosystem, and soil is never left bare for long.

 

“Nature’s wisdom gives us a clue to plant survival in your garden.” – Anne Gibson

 

So what design techniques can YOU use to avoid making this mistake?

 

Interplanting & Plant Associations

 

Plant diversity is a key to survival in nature. A wide variety of species that support each other.  By imitating nature’s patterns, you can confuse pest insects that are looking for a free feed at your place. This is a simple organic strategy you can use to your advantage.

A design technique that applies this pattern is Interplanting (or intercropping). The idea is to grow two or more different, but complementary, vegetables together. In the same pot or garden bed.

 

I believe in also combining vegetables with herbs and flowers.

I believe in also combining vegetables with herbs and flowers.

 

Diverse plant associations provide a range of benefits in an organic kitchen garden. Diversity plays a beneficial role in integrated pest management strategies.

So how do these plant associations or relationships work?

Most plants release defensive chemicals. These are nature’s inbuilt mechanism to help them survive pest and disease attack. Plant ‘chemical warfare’ of sorts! These chemicals are released via the soil, microbes and leaves. Pretty cool hey?

So how can YOU use interplanting and plant associations for less pests?

5 Design Strategies to Reduce Pests & Improve Production

 

1. Design your kitchen garden so plants have a mutually beneficial relationship with other species nearby.

 

One way to do this is to position herbs known to repel pest insects and attract beneficial predators, like this pretty and strong-smelling Catmint, near vulnerable vegetables.

One way to do this is to position herbs known to repel pest insects and attract beneficial predators, like this pretty and strong-smelling Catmint, near vulnerable vegetables.

 

According to Penny Woodward, author of one of my favourite books ‘Pest-Repellent Plants’, a good example is Catmint (a member of the mint family):

 

“Nepetalactone is the active chemical found in catmint and some other plants in this family. It repels some insects and, interestingly, is also a constituent of one of the pheromones, given off by aphids, which attracts parastic braconid wasps.”

 

2. Design to take advantage of a plant’s natural growth habit. A tall growing vegetable like corn, provides shade and stems for neighbouring climbing beans. Low growing pumpkins/squash have a large spreading canopy of leaves. These cool and shade the soil. A guild is a group of plants that support each other, while growing near each other. This is an example of working with nature to interplant species with mutually beneficial growth habits. One example of three plants that help each other as they grow are beans, corn and pumpkin or squash.

 

Interplant the "Three Sisters" (Beans, Corn & Pumpkin/Squash). These plants 'help' each other in different ways=higher yields in a smaller space + less water & soil inputs.

Interplant the “Three Sisters” (Beans, Corn & Pumpkin/Squash). These plants ‘help’ each other in different ways = higher yields in a smaller space + less water & soil inputs.

 

You plant corn before sowing climbing bean seeds at the base of each stem. The corn stalks become tall, strong ‘stakes’ or living trellises for the beans to wind up. This saves you money and space. The pumpkin/squash are planted after the beans. This gives them time to start climbing. This planting design maximises horizontal AND vertical space.

 

This diagram illustrates the interplanting of corn, beans and pumpkin/squash but you can use this concept with other plants like peas or melons.

This diagram illustrates the interplanting of corn, beans and pumpkin/squash but you can use this concept with other plants like peas or melons.

Image Source

 

  • BEANS have bacteria around their roots that turn nitrogen from the air into a plant-available form in the soil. This free food benefits all three plants.
  • PUMPKINS/SQUASH shade the soil, minimising moisture loss and weed growth which again, helps all three.
  • CORN shares sugars to help feed the nitrogen-fixing bacteria on the bean roots. Corn also provides support for beans to grow vertically.
  • For the space used, you can grow more food than you could if you planted each vegetable individually. So it’s a highly productive technique.
  • Look at all the beneficial connections between just these three plants. Add more into the mix and you start to see how interplanting can create a healthier, more productive space.

 

In my garden, you can see here the corn had established itself and bean seeds had been sown ready to take advantage of the free support 'trellis'. The corn leaves provide a welcome shady 'umbrella' for the beans here in hot weather, meaning less watering and plant stress. This plant combination is a real space saver in the garden bed too.

In my garden, you can see here the corn had established itself and bean seeds had been sown ready to take advantage of the free support ‘trellis’. The corn leaves provide a welcome shady ‘umbrella’ for the beans here in hot weather, meaning less watering and plant stress. This plant combination is a real space saver in the garden bed too.

 

You just have to play ‘Matchmaker’ with plants. You’ll soon see all sorts of flourishing relationships in your kitchen garden!

 

3. Select plants to perform beneficial roles. e.g. sharing nutrients, improving growth, attracting beneficial predator insects and reducing pest attack. Legumes, like beans and peas, add valuable nitrogen to your soil via their roots. This free mineral deposit helps improve the soil for your next crop. Plan to take advantage of this. How? By planting a nitrogen-loving food crop from a different plant family, like tomatoes, next.

 

Likewise, sweet potatoes are a living mulch that help break up your soil, aerate it, and improve the soil structure for the next crop.

Likewise, sweet potatoes are a living mulch that help break up your soil, aerate it, and improve the soil structure for the next crop.

 

4. Interplant your kitchen garden with herbs to provide a degree of insect protection. Many strong smelling herbs help repel or confuse insects that damage food crops. Well chosen companion plants can also help deter and confuse pest insects. How? By the scent and shape of their foliage.

 

In this garden bed, I interplanted eggplant and lettuces with many flowering herbs like dill, basil, coriander, chives and rocket. The flowers are bee and beneficial insect 'magnets'.

In this garden bed, I interplanted eggplant and lettuces with many herbs like dill, basil, coriander, chives and rocket. Allow some herbs to flower, set seed and self-sow. This saves you time and money!

 

5. Plant flowers and scented herbs to attract beneficial predatory and pollinating insects. e.g. Dill, coriander/cilantro and parsley. These herbs all have small flowers that are a magnet for predatory wasps and other beneficial insects. They attract nature’s ‘Clean Up Crew’ for many pest insects in your kitchen garden.

 

Ladybirds are beneficial insects with species that feast on aphids, mealybugs, scale & fungi and are part of your Garden Guardian Cavalry.

Ladybirds are beneficial insects with species that feast on aphids, mealybugs, scale & fungi and are part of your Garden Guardian Cavalry.

 

“Herbs and flowers are valuable additions to any kitchen garden.” Anne Gibson

 

From my personal experiences, thoughtful plant associations can:

  • Save you work;
  • Minimise plants lost to pests and disease;
  • Increase habitat and food sources for beneficial insects and birds;
  • Build a more diverse ecosystem;
  • Save money spent on pest management solutions; and
  • Help improve yields with better pollinated crops.

 

Food for thought from Toby Hemenway, Author 'Gaia's Garden'

Food for thought from Toby Hemenway, Author ‘Gaia’s Garden’

 

I hope these design tips give you some options to play around with in your kitchen garden. You’ll have less pests and a more productive, beautiful space. What are your experiences?

Resources:

 

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