Author Cindy Conner
Cindy Conner, the author of Grow a Sustainable Diet: Planning and Growing to Feed Ourselves and the Earth, shares tips on how to plant a sustainable garden with diverse plantings that attract beneficial insects, that will then feed on the not-so-beneficial ones, all without the use of chemicals.
Excerpt from the Book
Over the years I’ve heard many people say that if they can’t eat it, they’re not going to grow it. To be honest, in my early years of gardening I was that way also. However, we would do better to take a broader perspective. Our food crops are part of a much bigger ecosystem that all works together and we have to consider the whole of it. That’s where companion planting comes in. It can mean planting two or more crops next to each other or planting them nearby, such as in a border. When crops are mixed in the bed it is called interplanting. When plant-eating insects are scouting out their targets they are attracted to monocrop systems where there are whole fields of one thing — all their favorite food in one place, how nice for them! A sustainable garden will be developed with diverse plantings that attract beneficial insects, that will then feed on the not-so-beneficial ones, all without chemicals. These plantings will enhance the beauty of your garden and increase the flavor of your vegetables. I’m not going to give you lists of what grows well together and what doesn’t, although I’ll be giving you some examples. There are plenty of resources where you can find that information, including How to Grow More Vegetables and Carrots Love Tomatoes. What I am going to tell you about is my experiences of seeing what happens when an ecosystem is working. You can worry yourself silly trying to get the “right” combination of crops together and avoiding the “wrong” ones. It will be much easier if you understand the habits and life cycles of both the insects and the plants.
Some plants, particularly those with small flowers, are good at attracting beneficial insects. The beneficial ones are those attracted to the nectar and pollen of the flowers, but that also feed on the larvae of the insects you want to have less of in your garden. So, leaving some things to flower and go to seed in your garden is what you should strive for.
When I first grew basil I had read in the herb book that you need to harvest it before it flowers for the best culinary use. I thought I was not being a good and attentive gardener if it went to seed. Well, if you’ve ever grown basil, you know that it is hard to keep trimmed all the time and eventually, some of it will flower. One year, the basil had gotten ahead of me and I went to the garden with my clippers to get it back under control. What I found was that my basil was teaming with life. There were so many insects, including tiny wasps, buzzing around those plants it was amazing! They were after the flowers. The insects being attracted were beneficial ones. I eventually trimmed the basil, but not that day. The best time of day to witness something like that in your garden is between 10am and 2pm. Now I make sure to leave some of the basil flower every year. Often the best crops to grow together are the ones you eat together and so, for example, I plant basil with my tomatoes.
Dill goes well with squash and cucumbers. All the umbelliferous plants — dill, carrots, parsley, and celery — are good plants to have. Celery, parsley, and carrots are biennials, flowering the second year. If you leave them to overwinter in your garden, they will be up early in the spring and flowering without you even needing to think about it. If you like to use celery seed in your cooking, just watch for the seed to mature and gather it. You will have enhanced the beauty of your garden in early spring, attracted beneficial insects, and produced food for your kitchen — all while just letting nature take its course.
Not enough gardeners and farmers save seeds. The value of doing so is that the process of saving seeds sets the stage to provide food and habitat for the “good” bugs. I talk more about seeds in Chapter 9 of Grow a Sustainable Diet.