Gardens can be a wonderful adventure. Sure, all the food is fantastic, and the vitamin-and-mineral-packed produce delivers a delicious wallop of nutrition. But, sometimes the best part of a garden is before anything is ever planted. It’s the clever ways we can devise to grow more stuff in the same space, the dream of what we’ll be growing soon enough.

Designing a garden opens up the imagination, and for those of us with limited space, one of the most productive ways to tap into the creative is to think vertically. Most of us picture a field of crops everything is working linearly: There are rows of corn, rows of tomatoes, rows of whatever single thing the farmer fancies.

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But, we can utilize our space much more efficiently, and sometimes our crops will even benefit from it. The trick is thinking vertically!

Categorizing the Crops

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Different crops have different physical characteristics. Corn is tall and slender and requires quite a lot of space for just one ear to grow. Beans grow on vines that need something stalky to wind up. Squash plants have the tendency to spread their huge leaves out, stretching ten feet or more in any direction. When we put these together, we have plants that work together very spatially. The bean vines climb the corn stalks while the squash plants stay low and cover the soil. Now we’ve got three crops growing where only one might have been.

With that in mind, we have to get a grasp on how our crops are going to grow. We have to recognize what’s tall and stalky, like corn, sunflowers, amaranth, and okra. We have to pinpoint what low-lying and voracious, such as squash and sweet potatoes. Some crops are climbers, e.g. beans, tomatoes, and cucumbers. Some crops concentrate on leaves just above the surface—kale, chard, lettuce—while others put their energy underground—potatoes, beets, carrots. Our job is to group them together in a sensible way to make more of our garden beds.

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Knowing the Classics

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Once we get the crop characteristics in our minds, we also must become familiar with classic combinations. Some crops work really well together because they benefit one another or one benefits the other. For example, onions deter carrot flies, and these two grow different so as not to get in each other’s way. Basil and garlic are good friends with tomatoes because they keep pests at bay. Plus, they are the perfect flavor accompaniment when picking fresh tomatoes!

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In the same way, some plants for whatever reasons don’t get along at all. Corn and tomatoes aren’t great friends. Broccoli and cabbage, despite being the same family, don’t get along. Legumes and onions don’t work together because onions inhibit their growth.

There are great companion planting guides widely available on the internet, and these make for a great start to creating exciting combinations and avoiding detrimental ones. And, be sure to include plenty of culinary herbs in the garden. They are great for preventing insect issues.

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Exploring the Space

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Once we know the spacing and the classics, it’s time to take some well-calculated chances. For example, we might realize that some plants prefer cooler temperatures, so as the summer heat sets in, they might prefer a little shade. In this way, our early cold-weather crops such as spinach and lettuce could enjoy some shade cast from corn or another tall companion. Peas tangling up a trellis work very nicely with carrots tops. Leggy leaks probably have no trouble sticking up over strawberry runners scattering across the ground.

On the other hand, some combinations don’t work because they both want to occupy the same area. Sweet potatoes and squashes are both sprawling ground cover plants, so they’ll clash if planted together. Similarly, tomatoes and corn both want to climb up to six feet and have some space to breathe, so they’ll compete for the air space.

A Few Suggestions for Getting Started

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So, now that the gardening brain has been tilled and ideas are whirling around, here are some great companions with which to begin your adventure:

  • Peas and carrots (Forest Gump had it right all along!)
  • Corn, beans, and winter squash (“The Three Sisters”)
  • Tomato, basil, and garlic (Lettuce plays well here, too)
  • Nasturtium beneath (trellised) cucumber
  • Lettuce and leeks (The leeks poke up between the lettuce leaves)
  • Cabbage and dill (Lacy dill will willow its way up amongst the robust heads of cabbage)
  • Okra and melons (Melon vines will wind away on the sunny side of the okra shrub)

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