Companion Planting: The Conversion of a Skeptical Farmer


Melinda O’Briant

Adult Education Manager

I am a very skeptical person–especially of new products and technology.  I am the quintessential late adapter so much that on my last birthday my coworkers likened me to cassette tape recorders, phonographs and other nearly obsolete, nearly extinct pieces of machinery.

However, I am an equal opportunity skeptic. I’m skeptical of some of the older agricultural philosophies, such as planting by the signs of the moon. And, at one time, I was skeptical of the practice known as “companion planting.”

However, just as I finally caved and bought a smart phone, I have seen the light and I am a firm believer in companion planting.

It all started with a very large sweet potato harvest that we had here at Turner Farm several years ago.  The good news was that we had perfect alignment of, weather, labor, and knowledge that produced an incredibly robust yield of sweet potatoes.  The bad news? The crop was heavily damaged by voles.

Voles are a cute, subterranean mice-like critters that love succulent plant roots. They burrow and tunnel in the ground, looking for their favorite food and can damage acres of plants from the underside.  Sometimes while harvesting winter spinach you may find a pile of spinach leaves on the ground.  If you have others working with you, you will be tempted to scratch your head and say ,“Well why did my idiotic coworker harvest and then just drop this valuable and tasty spinach on the ground?”

Well, you will discover that your anger is misplaced.  The spinach roots were eaten by this cute-but-voracious little Mickey Mouse cousin and the leaves fell in a pile with nothing left beneath for support.

So, back to our huge sweet potato crop. When we pulled it up out of the soil with forks and hand, much of the sweet potatoes were scarred with bite marks.  They were, in fact, some of the ugliest, scariest vegetables I have ever seen in my life.

But we don’t discriminate against ugly food. We offered them to our CSA members and let them know that voles has tried to cut into their share. There was plenty of good eating there, we told them, if you just cut off the damaged part.

Then came that cursed technology to haunt me again! We had a CSA member who was a prolific blogger, and I came across a photo of our ugly sweet potatoes on her blog!

Oh the horror and embarrassment!

Determined to grow pretty vegetables, I started reading up on ways to prevent vole damage. I came across an article on companion planting—which I’d thought to be about on the level of superstition– that said planting catnip with your vegetables will keep the voles away.

Keep in mind, dear reader, that planting a mint cousin (which catnip is) in the vegetable garden is a scary proposition.  Mint is very difficult to keep contained.  I had visions of the catnip taking over and becoming a horrible invasive weed and every cat in the neighborhood treating the garden like a hookah bar.

Thankfully, I braved my fear, took a chance on companion planting and planted catnip as a vole deterrent. The catnip didn’t run wild and take over, and we have kept the voles at bay.  I don’t know how it works exactly , but it works.  I don’t know if they dislike the smell (I dislike the smell of catnip) or if all the neighborhood cats are attracted, and pounce on the voles.  I like to think of a pack of catnip-stoned cats reeking havoc on the vole population.

However it works, I have more great schemes to do more companion planting this upcoming gardening season.

Inspired to follow Melinda into the realm of companion planting? Check out Kate Cook’s Companion Planting Class at Turner Farm on February 28.



Recommended Posts