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Lessons in Intercropping

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Oops!  That’s not supposed to work that way! 

Gardening is a science, but it’s also an art.  We can control things like location, how we amend the soil, and which seeds we plant.  This is the science.  But the weather is in God’s hands.  Some things work some years, and then are complete flops the next.  Some techniques work for one person and cause catastrophe for others.  Herein lies the art.

 These are a couple of the mistakes we’ve made, and what we learned from them.

The Three Sisters

Planting corn, squash, and pole beans together in a single bed was practiced long ago by Native American tribes.  If they could do it, so could we, right? 

Wrong.  The Native Americans planted corn that remained in the field all season, drying on the stalk to be used for grinding flour or for parched corn.  We grew sweet corn, meant to eat in summer.  We wanted to harvest our corn 80 days after we planted it.  Squash vines are REALLY prickly when you try to walk through them to get at your corn.  Pumpkins need the full season to mature.  We also planted pole beans we wished to use fresh as shelly beans rather than dried beans.  Same problem with the prickly squash leaves.  And the bean harvest was definitely reduced.

If you want to try the Three Sisters we strongly recommend planting corn, beans, and winter squash that you want to fully ripen and dry in place for harvesting together just before frost.  How To Grow a Three Sisters Garden will guide you on your way: 

If you want to intercrop sweet corn we recommend planting hills of turnips in the spring at 3 foot intervals, and then planting 4-5 corn seeds in between each hill once all danger of frost is past.  The turnips won’t get too tall before the corn outgrows it.  And the turnips will be harvested before the corn begins to shade it seriously.  Trellis beans onto the garden fences and plant shorter things in front of them.  Zinnias and gladiola look lovely rising gracefully from the middle of your pumpkin patch.

White Clover Undercover

A great idea for gardens that grow one or two crops and then are turned under at the end of the season.  The idea is that you plant the clover under taller vegetables and it suppresses weeds.  Dwarf white clover (Trifolium repens) is considered ideal for use as a groundcover. It grows just 3 to 6 inches tall with a spreading, mat-forming growth habit. While it does spread, and is considered invasive in some areas, it is less invasive than many other clover varieties.  This should work under our caged tomatoes, right?

Wrong.  We plant in permanent, no-till beds.  The clover loved it, spreading aggressively underground, flowering and dropping seeds all over for next year.  It did a great job of eliminating other weeds.  But it took three years to fully eradicate the clover. 

We recommend planting lettuce around your tomato cages.  Lettuce can get bitter in the heat of summer unless shaded which your tomato plants will do nicely.  Closely planted leaf lettuce cuts down on weeds and provides a lovely cut-and-come-again salad bar right there under your cherry tomatoes.  Plant a few carrots in-between the tomato cages and you’ve got a full salad growing together.

Intensive intercropping takes some skill and experience.  There are lots of good books and internet sites to provide you with initial information.  But your garden is unique.  Developing skill and experience requires making some mistakes and learning from them.  With practice you’ll find the combinations that work for you. 

Published on Mar 7, 2021

Mother Earth Gardener

Expert advice on all aspects of growing.