9 Unique Super Food Companion Plants for Vegetables
If you’re used to growing only annual vegetables, or decorative perennials, you’re missing out on a whole world of easy to grow foods that can pack a huge amount of nutrition into your garden, while complimenting and even helping your vegetables grow. If you already have the perennial itch, like me, below are some favorite perennial companion plants for vegetables based on the highest nutrition for the lowest amount of work and inputs.
Perennial Brassicas (Brassica species) Dig Deeper2. Good King Henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricus); the No Work Greens:3. The Mallow Family (Malvaceae family); Stunning and Functional4. Chinese Toon (Toona sinensis); the Flavorful Salad Tree5. Hazelnuts (Corylus species); Easy and Packed
1. Perennial Brassicas (Brassica species) Dig Deeper
Like their annual counterparts (broccoli, kale, and collards), perennial brassicas are nutrition power houses, but unlike the annual versions, you only have to plant them once, watch them grow, and harvest. Like all perennials, these brassicas have deeper roots than annuals, which means they’re more drought tolerant, and can bring up nutrients from deeper in the soil (therefore not competing with your shallow rooted annuals). Brassicas need full sun (8+ hours), and organic matter and nitrogen rich soil (before planting apply compost and seaweed fertilizer). As with all plants, mulching and applying compost is highly recommended to maintain soil moisture, prevent weeds, and build organic matter. Examples of perennial brassicas include Sea Kale, Five Star Perennial Broccoli, and Tree Collards.
2. Good King Henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricus); the No Work Greens:
This forgotten perennial salad green was grown for hundreds of years, before our culture’s single-minded obsession with annual food plants began. It prefers fertile, moist soil (compost and mulch heavily first) with part shade. They can be directly seeded in the garden when the soil is warm – just make a line in the mulch to expose the soil a little (not completely) and plant seeds about 3 times their thickness deep, as with most seeds. This plant does not like to be transplanted, but is otherwise very tough and easy to grow, growing in most soil types and conditions.
3. The Mallow Family (Malvaceae family); Stunning and Functional
Everyone has heard of marsh mallow and hibiscus, but did you know they’re related? What’s more, members of this family of plants all have gorgeous flowers and edible leaves, and many also have roots with medicinal and/or edible properties. Examples of this family include Rose of Sharon (a late season flowering shrub with tougher leaves that could be steamed), Musk Mallow (young leaves are excellent in the salad), Hardy Hibiscus (with the largest flowers of any North American perennial flower) and the famous Marsh Mallow whose root was once used to flavor the popular fireside treat. They all like a moist, organic matter rich soil, lots of mulch, and full sun. Marsh mallows (as the name might imply) require more moisture than most plants in the family, so mulch very well, keep an eye on them in droughts and be ready to water.
4. Chinese Toon (Toona sinensis); the Flavorful Salad Tree
Chinese Toons are a medium sized tree from China (of course), which you can grow at the edge of your garden, and trim to keep to the size you prefer. The trick is to plant trees and other perennials in a way that doesn’t block the sun of sun loving plants, while providing shade for those that like a bit of reprise from the heat (e.g. many salad greens). Another bonus of growing deeper rooted things with your annuals: less root competition for water and nutrients. Best grown in Growing Zone 6 or warmer in my experience (though can survive if protected in Zone 5), this tree’s leaves are edible and have a distinct onion flavor. High in vitamin A and protein, among other things, you can also harvest their seeds and sprout them just like alfalfa or bean sprouts, as is done commonly in China. They require full sunand grow best in fertile well-drained soils.
5. Hazelnuts (Corylus species); Easy and Packed
Hazels are a vigorous shrub that produces the well known, delectable and highly nutritious nut. Their nuts are high in important nutrients and minerals like Thiamin, Vitamins B6, C, E, K, folate, iron, magnesium, potassium, zinc, manganese, and a ton of other things! They make an excellent wind break companion plant for the vegetable garden, which can dramatically boost plant growth, since wind breaks are associated with a 6-44% increase in crop yield. Consider planting them at the edge of the garden in a line with plants spaced 3 feet apart, on the side that your main cold season winds come from. They require full sun, and well drained, nutrient rich soil. Many people grow hazelnuts as a tree, but most varieties are actually naturally shrubs, and this would be the best form to grow them in as a wind break, while also making it easier to harvest their nuts (since they’ll grow outward instead of upward). For higher production, however, you can plant them closer to 6-8 feet apart. You can shape them easily by pruning them while they’re dormant, and if you have a lot of squirrels where you live, you might want to take steps to keep the squirrels at bay.
6. Lavender (Lavandula species); Medicine and Pest Deterrent
This is an excellent plant to grow with your vegetables, having been used for centuries as a pest deterrent by gardeners and homesteaders. Lavender contains compounds that are poisonous to insects, and combined with its powerful scent, it is thought that it helps to deter and confuse pest insects, making it harder to find their favorite foods in your garden (i.e. your vegetables). Lavender is also important as a flowering plant, producing beautiful bouquets that attract beneficial bees and other insect allies to your garden. The plant does best with protection from winter winds, and full sun, but doesn’t require super rich soil or a lot of water. It will do well in almost any soil, as long as it is well-drained and not acidic, but it prefers warm and dry soil. Lavender is a highly antiseptic and can kill everything from typhoid to fungal and yeast growths, and is even considered a strong antidote to some snake venom! It is used to treat burns, cuts and other wounds, usually in the form of an essential oil, and it can prevent scar tissue from forming.
7. Angelica, Lovage and Other and Allies Umbels (Apiaceae family); Bringing Beauty
These plants bring a distinct beauty to the garden, while also offering food and medicine to you, the grower, and food to an important insect ally to boot, the small but helpful parasitic wasp. These little guys lay their eggs inside garden pests like beetles, flies, scales, caterpillars and aphids, which are then eaten from the inside out by the larvae… gruesome but effective.Some uses of members of the family include Angelica’s use as a blood tonic for women and Lovage’s use as a wonderful celery flavored addition to soup. Most of the plants can grow in dappled shade or full sun, and prefer deep fertile soil.
8. Perennial Onions and other Alliums (Allium species); Garnish with Ease
That’s right, even onions have perennial counterparts that will live for many years in the garden with minimal work. Some of my favorites are Perennial Bunching Onions and Egyptian Walking Onions, both of which are useful as green onions (though they do have small bulbs). Other perennial alliums (the family onions are in) include ramps, wild leeks, and wild garlic. Most like full sun, but some, like wild leeks, can grow in the shade. All are best grown in loose, rich, well drained but moist soil.
9. Sunchokes (Helianthus tuberosus); the Fast Growing Potato Alternative with Flowers
Also known as Jerusalem Artichokes, Sunchokes are a large plant that dies back to the ground after a freeze, concentrating their energy in their unique and delicious roots, which are best dug up in the fall, early spring before they emerge, or even in the winter if you mulch them heavily enough that the ground doesn’t freeze. This sunflower relative is super aggressive and spreads by root, underground, so it might be best to grow them in their own garden plot. I recommend starting off eating just a little, and then working your way up, since, similar to beans, your body must become used to digesting them. They require full sun, and a deep, loose soil to make for larger roots and easier harvesting. There are now varieties that have smoother roots, which makes them much easier to clean, so look out for these types especially when ordering the roots.
There are many other perennial edibles and medicinals you can grow among your annual vegetables as well, most of which will compliment them nicely.
So this spring when you’re planning what to grow in your garden, consider branching out into perennial companion plants. Contrary to popular belief, they are not more work in the garden, and they’re easier to get started with than you might think. In fact, most perennials are less work, with fewer nutrient and water needs, not to mention only having to plant them once! Just be careful to watch what you’re eating, as some perennials have relatives that are not edible. Tell us what you think of our list of vegetable garden companion plants in the comments below, share any of your favorites we missed, and please share this article if you enjoyed it.
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Trent Rhode is a freelance writer, perpetual student of ecology and life, and ecological garden designer and landscaper based in Ontario, Canada. He is founder of the permaculture design company Living Landscapes Eco-Logical Design. Trent lives on his off-grid rural homestead and farm with his partner and two dogs, where he runs a permaculture plant nursery and is currently setting up an ecological gardening education center and permaculture internship program.