Until a few years ago, my veggie garden had a limited palette.  Tomatoes and basil were always present, along with a few cucumbers and peppers.  It was definitely nothing to brag about.  Then I had a health crisis and subsequent change of diet.  Suddenly, I needed lots of organic vegetables.  Grocery shopping incurred lots of muttering about the high cost of healthy food…and that was before the drought hit California!  It wasn’t long before I decided to jump into gardening with a vengeance, since I had 30 years of landscaping experience.  My initial confidence has now been tempered by the reality of growing food that a gazillion other creatures want to eat, too.  That’s not something you worry about so much in landscaping, so respect your local farmer!
PicturePhoto courtesy NC Cooperative Extension
The last two years my nemesis was the squash bug.  I only use organic sprays and sometimes the timing is not good due to the presence of bees.  That seemed to be the case last year, so I spent a lot of time bent over and smushing them (technical terminology for sending them to bug heaven).  Boy, do they have a nasty smell!  During the winter, I licked my wounds and plotted revenge while reading about companion plantings.  Since plants cannot run away from predators, they have evolved to contain natural substances in their flowers, leaves, and roots that can either attract or repel certain insects.   The key is to provide “neighborhoods” of selected planting arrangements that will help food production.  After all, this is what Nature does by creating a healthy ecosystem full of diversity.  The problem with conventional pesticides is that the good bugs are destroyed along with the pests.

PicturePhoto by Betty Lambright
Borage was high on the list of top companion plants for tomatoes, squash, and strawberries.  It is an easy-to-grow annual with pretty blue flowers that readily self-sows for a continual presence…a big plus for us permaculture types.   The flowers and young leaves taste like cucumber, but use in moderation as they can have a mild laxative effect!  The flowers were made into candies in the Middle Ages, and are still used as decorations on pastries or desserts.  I grew several plants from seed and transplanted them near the tomatoes and winter squash in late March.  Nearly 2 months later with the borage slowly collapsing at the end of its cycle, I finally saw a few squash bugs.  I am also growing tansy, another squash bug repellant, so I cut off several fronds and stuffed them around the squash.  I’m sure a few of the bugs got away, so this will be another chance to evaluate the effectiveness of companion plantings.  From my previous experience, I will say that that borage seemed pretty effective and I will continue to utilize it.

I’ve seen an interesting discussion on permaculture blogs concerning scientific studies to prove the validity of companion plantings.   One comment summed up the reason why there are so few scientific studies:  “I have a feeling that the reason there's not much scientific data on this is because of funding sources. Who is going to fund a study that will prove a way to minimize chemical intervention? Not the chemical companies.”  Universities do acknowledge the validity of several mechanisms that create beneficial plant association, such as the well-known “Three Sisters” Native American companion planting practice.  Maybe the borage and tansy work through biochemical pest suppression.  I will appreciate any method as long as it keeps me from smushing squash bugs.



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    Betty Lambright lives and gardens east of Austin, on the northern edge of the Lost Pines Ecosystem.  She practices permaculture and rainwater harvesting, with a focus on helping others gain water and food self-sufficiency


    May 2015