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.

Sitting in my car in the downtown Austin Whole Foods parking lot, I’m watching a light rain fall on yet another soggy day in May.  Thanks to El Nino, most of Texas has experienced weeks of higher than normal rainfalls.  As the raindrops occasionally splash through the partially opened window, they hit my skin and anchor me firmly in this physical reality.  But is this material reality, including the pen and paper I’m utilizing right now, really as solid as we perceive?  Before you wander off, (as you think to yourself “What does this have to do with gardening or ecology?”)  bear with me.  I promise to bring it around full circle.

I had just read and shared a Facebook post on quantum physics and how the material world is not really material at all.  The concept is not new to me, but I’ll be the first to admit I don’t completely understand the finer nuances.  Nobel Prize winning physicists have explained that everything is energy vibrating at different rates.  The 2004 movie, What the Bleep Do We Know, presented the concept as basically tuning into a particular frequency, much like you would change a TV channel or radio station.   The information from that TV station you just left still exists, but you can’t see or hear it.  Right now I’m tuned to sitting in my car on a rainy day in Austin, Texas.  What if I turned my perception “dial” just a little bit, where would I be and what would I see?  Before you snort in disgust at such a preposterous idea, think what our great grandparents would say if you could tell them about self- driving cars!  Nikola Tesla said, “The day science begins to study non-physical phenomena, it will make more progress in one decade than in all the previous centuries of its existence.”

So…here is the tie-in to my gardening experience.  Last fall, in our ongoing experiment to raise as much healthy organic food as possible, I had planted 14 cauliflower plants in one of the hugelkultur beds.  I don’t always stay ahead on the insect controls, and will sometimes have to resort to a spray of Neem oil or spinosad.  That is what has been driving my research on companion plantings as a way to naturally reduce pest populations, which I will be writing about at another time.   Anyway, I ended up with a pretty healthy infestation of caterpillars.  I first tried hand-picking and squashing the little buggers, but finally resorted to the spray .  Those plants looked pitiful!  One day I was preparing to spray yet another time, but for some strange reason I stopped.  Hey, we’re all just trying to make a living, including the hungry caterpillars, right?  I decided to try another option, and that was to address the deva, or “energy”, of the caterpillars.  I said that I was calling a truce and that they could have their share as long as I got my share.  With that, I turned around and left the garden.  True confession:  I really thought that the plants would be devoured, but I had too many other things going on to baby the plants any further. 

Three weeks later, Donna came to me and said we needed to harvest the cauliflower.  She knew nothing about my “agreement”, so I gave her a funny look and went to investigate.  The picture says it all.  We ate cauliflower all winter.  Maybe the weather or life cycle of the caterpillars saved the plants.  I cannot honestly explain what happened, and it’s still a bit of a mystery as I don’t have enough experience as a cauliflower grower.  Einstein said “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science.”  One thing I do know:  I will stay open to the mystery.



    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