By Mark Nelson, Farm Manager at Lodestar Gardens Learning Center.
Our lives are full of varied relationships: Mothers and fathers caring for their kids, grown children aiding their elderly parents, young love, long-married couples and, importantly, the relationship you have with yourself.
Positive connections nurture our souls, allow us to feel valued and make even the toughest days bearable. They can challenge us to grow and better ourselves, but also can turn sour and toxic if poisoned or left unattended for too long.
Surprisingly perhaps, your garden operates much the same way. On the outside, it may look like some dirt with rows of carrots, lettuce, radishes, maybe some fruit trees and flowers, but a healthy garden consists of an extremely diverse ecosystem that is built on harmonious relationships with a measure of give-and-take.
It Starts in the Soil
The soil is truly the beating heart of the garden and its health courses through the ground like blood in veins, just as heart health has a profound impact on our vitality as humans. Soil health relies on the chemistry of a variety of organisms that spend their lives at (or below) ground level. The soil biology plays a pivotal role in determining the overall health of your plot. Organisms like earthworms and arthropods, beneficial microscopic soil nematodes which assist in decomposition, single-celled protozoa which help in mineralizing nutrients for plant uptake, bacteria, fungi and organic matter all make up the soil food cycle incorporating birds and other animals that feed on the worms and insects.
This teeming ecosystem, the majority of which is invisible to the naked eye, provides much of what plants need to flourish. In short, healthy soil equals healthy plants (which should then equal healthy humans).
There are library shelves and internet sites fully devoted to soil chemistry. In Navajo and Apache counties, we aren’t particularly blessed with great natural soil. However, it is possible to build and develop good soil through composting (the best natural fertilizer around), the introduction of compost or manure teas to the ground, and perhaps most importantly seeking out the advice of neighbors in the area who have succeeded in cultivating rich, healthy soil. What the area lacks in vibrant native soil, it makes up for in a wealth of knowledge in the community.
Plants Helping Plants
The companion garden is all about utilizing beneficial relationships between plants. One prime example is marigolds – the cheery annual flower that brings a shock of yellow, copper and orange to the garden. Companion gardeners have used marigolds for decades for many reasons. Their aroma can help repel deer (as does lavender) and certain insects, while the underground structure will deter harmful nematodes and help stimulate the growth of surrounding plants.
Herbs such as sage, basil, rosemary and horseradish will act as natural insect repellent, while sunflowers, daisies and familiar herbs like dill, fennel and parsley will attract beneficial insects like ladybugs and, hopefully, bees. Tall sunflowers also can protect cucumbers from overexposure to the sun by casting shade. The list of beneficial plant interactions goes on and on—as does the list of which plants dislike certain neighbors based on a variety of factors.
Just as soil chemistry features volumes of research spanning decades, so does companion gardening. It provides both master gardeners and new gardeners with the opportunity to be creative in laying out different neighborhoods of partnered plants in their growing area. Using science and symbiotic plant relationships, you might start to see a noticeable difference in the health of your garden fairly soon.
Some of the literature we have at the Lodestar Gardens Learning Center library are the books, Carrots Love Tomatoes: Secrets of Companion Planting for Successful Gardening, by Louise Rotte and Great Garden Companions: A Companion-Planting System for a Beautiful, Chemical-Free Vegetable Garden, by master gardener Sally Jean Cunningham. Both are invaluable resources to consult when working in the garden. There exists years of research and development into companion gardening, all there to absorb as building blocks toward a healthier garden.
Doing a bit a legwork and planning before undertaking (or reconfiguring) a garden project can go a long way toward its success, however, there will always remain the ever-valuable trial-and-error aspect to gardening. Even in our section of the White Mountains, not all areas are created equal in terms of what can grow successfully.
The Human Component
Every balanced companion garden features the most crucial relationship of all: the partnership between you and your garden.
A garden needs attention, copious amounts of patience, and love. It requires a helping hand, someone to nurture it and feed it. Gardens crave someone to listen to their needs, to keep them healthy, happy and warm on those chilly mountain nights.
In exchange for our assistance and care, the garden will produce to the best of its ability for the benefit of all (humans down to those single-celled organisms in the soil).
The parallels to our own human relationships really are astounding. The close care and attention we give those positive connections and collaborations in our daily lives, the more we will be rewarded by the outcome.
The next time you step into your garden, approach it with an attitude of companionship and mutual assistance. If you scratch your garden’s back, it’ll fill your stomach.
Clark and Barbara Hockabout of Lodestar Gardens Learning Center are hosting a 2017 Saturday Winter Farmers Market Jan 21-April 29, featuring fresh produce, free noon time presentations, lunch, free tours.