Growing Expert Talks Companion Planting

 In

Farmers and gardeners are much like the plants they love in that they thrive in well-established and diverse communities. One of the brightest minds in Cincinnati’s growing community also happens to be an expert in planning gardens that maximize relationships.

Kate Cook, garden manager at Carriage House Farm in North Bend, will bring her wealth of knowledge and growing expertise to Turner Farm for her Companion Planting class on Wednesday, February 28. The class is designed to provide participants with a better understanding of the practical strategies for grouping plants to maximize beneficial relationships.

Turner Farm recently sat down with Kate to get a preview of the class and find out why companion planting is so important to successful growing.

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Turner Farm:  What’s your background and connection to the local area?

Kate Cook: I am a Cincinnati native, and my Father’s side of the family has lived in the area since the 1850’s. Both of my parents are avid home gardeners and passionate cooks. I have taken my knowledge of growing and preparing food for granted until I noticed it was not common among my peers.  I started experimental zero-spray gardening in my tiny urban yards, finding success with a unique combination of companion planting, intercropping and biointensive (minimum space – maximum yield) growing.

 

How did that turn into a career and your current position?

I was laid off in the recent recession of 2008, so I applied and was accepted into the Findlay Market CHEF (Cultivating a Healthy Environment for Farmers) program. I was grouped with other independent farmers and refugee groups from Burundi and Guatemala. For my Findlay Market table, I worked the CHEF garden and three other small city garden plots.  I joined the Work-Share CSA group (volunteering) at Carriage House Farm to get experience with larger-scale growing practices.  At the end of that first year of full-time farming, Carriage House Farm offered me the opportunity to manage their market garden. Last year was my 7th year as the Carriage House Farm Garden Manager.

My home garden has been featured in several books (The Yarn Garden and I Garden: Urban Style) and I am a regular guest on In The Garden With Ron Wilson (the only coast-to-coast call-in gardening radio show).  I am a regular workshop presenter at the annual OEFFA (Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association) conference, where I contribute to the education of the next generation of market farmers. I am a member of the local chapter of Chef’s Collaborative, and this year I move into some new roles: taking over the honey operation at Carriage House, managing on-farm events and social media presence of the farm, and developing an educational program for the farm, beginning with a series of kitchen classes.

 

What is companion planting and why is it important for growers?

Companion planting is the act of purposefully planting different crops next to each other specifically to benefit the plants (increase yields) and/or to deter pest pressure. Companion planting also establishes a greater biodiversity within growing systems. It can be an important tool for growers looking to minimize their use of insecticides and physical barriers in their gardens, and can provide habitat for a variety of beneficial insects.

 

What are some basic techniques for maximizing the effectiveness of companion planting?

My favorite techniques are coupling classic garden crops like cabbage with aromatic culinary herbs like dill, and a smattering of green onions. The dill and onions can distract certain garden pests like the imported cabbage worm from the cabbage, and dill can deter onion maggots from the scallions. As a bonus, the home grower can enjoy three food items from the same growing space!

 

What are some common companion planting mistakes made by growers?

The most common mistake I see with the home grower is trying to plant too many things in a small space. There needs to be a solid understanding of spatial and sunlight requirements for all of the plant varieties involved, else overcrowding will be an issue, and none of the plants in the system will thrive. If the grower is using companion planting for pest deterrent, it is really helpful to understand the specific pests and their life cycles to achieve the maximum effectiveness from these concepts. For instance, what would work for an insect pest wouldn’t necessarily work for rabbits or deer.

 

What can participants in your Companion Planting class expect?

Participants can expect an engaging discussion of companion planting, intercropping, including “nurse” or “trap” cropping, and they will receive a handout with a compiled Companion Planting table for home use. I will have a presentation of past companion planting projects I have done at Carriage House, a discussion of what has and hasn’t worked well, and how current research is helping to define how I will move forward with the technique for certain crops in the future. There will be plenty of time for questions, as each grower’s space and experience is unique.

 

You’ve brought this message to various audiences. What is it about companion planting that keeps you motivated to continue preaching its gospel.

My favorite thing about teaching this subject is how everyone who attends has their own stories and experiences to add to the group knowledge. We all learn from each other, which is one of the things that I love most about agriculture. Every year brings different challenges and successes. The more we can share and learn from discussion, the more confident we are with our planting, and we build a stronger community through our shared love of gardening!

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Join Kate Cook for her Companion Planting class in the Turner Farm Studio Barn on Wednesday, February 28. Kate will also be a part of our all-star panel of local growers, A Conversation with Farmers and Market Gardeners, on Wednesday, February 1. Details and ticket information for both classes are available here.