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Cyclical Agriculture and Companion Planting: How to Maximize Your Garden

Updated: Dec 8, 2023



Text Only: Cyclical Agriculture and Companion Planting: How to Maximize Your Garden!

Originally Presented by Kevin Bolland

in Cooperation with Harvest to Home, LLC


Thank you,

Presented by:

Garden Maintenance Technician, Naturalist

I. Introduction

Gardens can be tricky. Each plant has needs that differ from one another. Planting one kind next to another can be beneficial or detrimental. Timing the weather and planting for the right season can be a challenge. Choosing what to grow, where, based on how much sunlight and what is adjacent can be a daunting task.

If maximizing the garden is the goal, consider Companion Planting and/or Cyclical Agriculture Practices. These methods can be used together or separately to help you get what you want from your garden patch. Whether it be fields of the same kind of tomatoes, or a lush and expansive show garden that serves to entertain guests.

Here we present a few options for methods that you can use to get more out of every square foot. Depending on what you have to work with, and with reasonable expectations, even a small planter box the size of a pallet can produce a great variety and delicious array of produce.

A: Definitions of Cyclical Agriculture and Companion Planting

Cyclical agriculture and companion planting are two methods of agriculture that have valuable principles to help you maximize your garden's yield.

Generally speaking, Cyclical agriculture is a system of crop rotation that helps to improve soil health and reduce the need for pesticides, herbicides, and relies on organic processes to maximize growth over time, from season to season.

Companion planting is the practice of planting certain plants together because they work together and can benefit from being together by providing for one another.

Both cyclical agriculture and companion planting can help you grow healthier, more productive plants with less effort, and with better results. But not without effort.

The main problems often are, knowing which methods to use, how to supplement, and when to plant your garden.

In this guide, we will discuss the differences between, and the pros and cons of cyclical agriculture and companion planting, and how you can apply this knowledge about these practices to your own garden.

Anthropological Example: The Three Sisters

Corn, Beans, Squash - known as the three sisters to native americans, and many central american indigenous people groups. When planted together, these three species maximized the yield due to the symbiotic relationships between them. Corn provided structure to the climbing beans, squash provided ground cover and attracted pollinators, and beans created soil nutrient stability with nitrogen, and helped to reduce erosion.

Click the link below to see the step by step method to plant and harvest the three sisters!

(Image: @Happylittlefishes - Green and Red Onions, Chives, Basil, Thyme, Arugula Lettuce, and Oregano in an 8 sq ft bed, cared for by Harvest to Home)

B: Overview Cyclical Agriculture and Companion Planting

Cyclical agriculture and companion planting have many benefits for the environment, the gardener, and the economy.

Environmental benefits:

  • Reduced soil erosion and runoff

  • Improved soil fertility and productivity

  • Increased water retention and conservation

  • Reduced use of pesticides and herbicides

  • Reduced greenhouse gas emissions

Economic benefits:

  • Increased crop yields (more to go around)

  • Reduced costs of production

  • Increased profits (commercially)

  • Less Inequality over time (when distributed equitably)

Health benefits:

  • Increased access to fresh, healthy food

  • Reduced exposure to pesticides and herbicides

  • Improved mental and physical health (for the gardener and consumer)

  • More variety in the diet when planned accordingly

Cyclical agriculture and companion planting can be applied to small home gardens in a variety of ways. However, the size, location, depth, and sunlight exposure in your garden, as well as your desired outcome will all determine what best practices you need to implement to ensure success.

Some examples include:

  • Rotating crops on a three-year cycle to ensure soil health

  • Planting nitrogen-fixing plants to improve soil fertility

  • Planting companion plants that repel pests or attract beneficial insects

  • Using organic methods of pest control, like decoy planting or neem oil

Companion planting strategies for small home gardens include:

  • Planting legumes with vegetables to improve nitrogen levels in the soil

  • Planting herbs with vegetables to repel pests

  • Planting flowers with vegetables to attract beneficial insects

  • Planting fruit trees with vegetables to provide shade and windbreaks.

Cyclical Agriculture planting practices for small home gardens include:

  • Planting a heavy feeding Tomato for one summer season and following with a fall and winter season planting of a light feeding crop such as snap peas, cabbage, carrots, dill, beetroot, onions, and legumes.

  • Onion stalks can be harvested while the onion is growing. Once the onion is picked after 2 to 4 months, a heavy feeding plant like tomatoes, chili, winter squash, winter cabbage, pumpkin, radishes, or lettuce can be planted to fill the time between the end of the cool season and start of the warm season.

  • Seasonal Plantings, where one crop is removed and replaced with a new crop.

Cyclical agriculture and companion planting are two sustainable methods of gardening that can help you maximize your garden's yield. By following the tips in this presentation, you can create a healthy, productive garden that is good for the environment and your health.

C: Overview of Challenges and Solutions

Regardless of what kind of garden you have, it is likely that you will experience some challenges and failures. Even though some practices like hydroponics, timed irrigation, and soil supplementation can make the concept of gardening a more exact science, growing produce from a garden bed, outside, and with the right equipment can pose challenges regardless of your experience level.

Common challenges faced by small home gardeners can range from diseases and pests, to weather events and water availability. This is why it is important to try and assess your goals and needs for the garden before making an investment. Gardening can be expensive to start up, especially if time is a factor.

Some of the most common challenges endured are:

  • Pests - such as aphids, beetles, caterpillars, mites, and grasshoppers

  • Diseases - such as powdery mildew, blight, and rot can also damage plants.

  • Extreme Weather - scorching sun after watering leads to leaf burn or wilt.

  • Consistency in Watering - Balancing what needs each plant has is challenging.

  • Timing and Planting Schedule - We live in a busy world.

  • Germination - Overall a challenging time where plants are fragile.

Solutions to overcome these challenges (Organically!)

There are a number of organic methods that can be used to control pests and diseases, including:

  • Using beneficial insects, such as ladybugs, to control pests

  • Using natural pesticides, such as neem oil, to deter or kill insects

  • Rotating crops to prevent the build-up of pests and diseases over time

  • Planting varieties of plants like marigolds, tarragon, or citronella that naturally deter insects and other pests.

  • Using good garden sanitation practices, such as removing diseased plants and debris from the garden and clean clippers.

Cyclical agriculture and companion planting are two methods of gardening that can help you maximize your garden's yield. However, some drawbacks do exist and can hinder some gardeners from pursuing these specific styles of gardening in favor of other methods that can sometimes cost more, but may be easier to implement.

Beware of inorganic and synthetic methods for handling garden pests. A common herbicide, glyphosate became well-known as the main component in the well-liked weed killer Roundup. Once heralded as a revolutionary way to control undesirable plants, Roundup was marketed by agribusiness giant Monsanto. But as research and arguments connecting glyphosate to possible health and environmental hazards surfaced, controversy sprang out.

II. Benefits and Drawbacks of cyclical agriculture and companion planting

Although there are many methods of gardening, it is possible that cyclical agriculture and companion planting offer routes to more sustainable results. Afterall, in the United States, some estimates seem to indicate that 30 to 40 percent of the food supply is wasted. Why should we care about food waste? | USDA

Effective sustainability for our food supply will require massive, systematic changes which are difficult to conceive and enact. Policy changes and industry changes are often out of sync with the actual needs of people. Much of agricultural advancement has come as a result of anthropological heritage and study. As such, these principles can be applied anywhere on earth with great success.



The real challenge is to understand the plants themselves.



A: Benefits

5 Environmental Benefits:

  1. Reduced soil erosion: Cyclical agriculture helps to keep the soil in place by rotating crops and planting cover crops. This helps to prevent soil from being washed away by rain or wind.

  2. Improved soil fertility: Cyclical agriculture helps to improve soil fertility by adding nutrients and organic matter to the soil. This helps plants to grow healthier and more productive.

  3. Increased water retention: Cyclical agriculture helps to increase water retention in the soil by planting deep-rooted plants and cover crops. This helps plants to get the water they need during dry periods.

  4. Reduced use of pesticides and herbicides: Cyclical agriculture helps to reduce the use of pesticides and herbicides by planting companion plants that repel pests or attract beneficial insects. This helps to keep pests in check without the use of harmful chemicals.

  5. Reduced greenhouse gas emissions: Cyclical agriculture helps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by improving soil health and reducing the need for pesticides and herbicides. This helps to protect the environment and fight climate change.

5 Economic Benefits:

  1. Increased crop yields: Cyclical agriculture and companion planting can help to increase crop yields by improving soil fertility, water retention, and pest control.

  2. Reduced costs: Cyclical agriculture and companion planting can help to reduce costs by reducing the need for pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers.

  3. Increased profits: Cyclical agriculture and companion planting can help to increase profits by increasing crop yields and reducing costs.

  4. Improved food security: Cyclical agriculture and companion planting can help to improve food security by increasing the availability of fresh, healthy food.

  5. Reduced environmental impact: Cyclical agriculture and companion planting can help to reduce the environmental impact of agriculture by reducing soil erosion, water pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions.


5 Health Benefits:

  1. Increased nutrient intake: Cyclical agriculture and companion planting can help to increase the nutrient intake of people who eat the food grown in these systems. This is because these systems help to improve soil fertility and water retention, which leads to healthier plants that contain more nutrients.

  2. Reduced exposure to pesticides and herbicides: Cyclical agriculture and companion planting can help to reduce the exposure of people to pesticides and herbicides. This is because these systems help to control pests and diseases without the use of harmful chemicals.

  3. Increased physical activity: Cyclical agriculture and companion planting can help to increase physical activity levels. This is because these systems require people to be more active in order to plant, maintain, and harvest the crops.

  4. Improved mental health: Cyclical agriculture and companion planting can help to improve mental health. This is because these systems can provide a sense of purpose, connection to nature, and stress relief.

  5. Reduced risk of chronic diseases: Cyclical agriculture and companion planting can help to reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. This is because these systems can help to improve diet, increase physical activity, and reduce stress.

Note, these benefits may require at least some level of change to your lifestyle.

Are these large harvests a benefit or a drawback? It all depends on your lifestyle and needs.

B: Drawbacks

Labor

Cyclical agriculture and companion planting can be labor-intensive depending on how large your space is. Although a small garden that is something like 4’ x 8’ may only require an hour or two of maintenance each week, the amount of effort will increase with more rotations and more cycles. Furthermore, it requires careful planning and execution to ensure that the crops are planted in the correct order and that the companion plants are compatible. Sometimes it can be difficult to find the time to plan, rotate, harvest, preserve, and store crops.

Awareness of Seasonal Changes

Cyclical agriculture and companion planting also require an awareness of seasonal changes. You need to know when to plant and harvest your crops, and you need to be prepared to adjust your planting schedule if the weather changes unexpectedly. Just because the grocery store always has fresh tomatoes doesn’t mean that they’ll grow any time of the year on your patio.

Some pests and diseases that are common in your area may be more serious during some specific times of the year. Protecting your crops from them can be challenging! One tomato worm can destroy a whole tomato plant in a matter of a day or two.

Limitations of Availability and Practicality

Not all crops can be grown together, and not all kinds plants are available in all areas. Finding a specific kind of grape, blueberry, or tomato may be a challenge depending on what nursery is around. Some methods of cyclical agriculture, such as the three sisters method, may not be practical for small-scale gardeners or those who do not have a lot of space or soil. While it may take a tractor 5 minutes to till a garden bed, most small home gardens don’t have that kind of power on hand at multiple times of the year. Some may not have the time to really do it right by hand.

Climate Limitations

Different crops have different climate and temperature requirements. Some crops, such as tomatoes, need warm weather and lots of water to grow, while others, such as broccoli, can tolerate cooler temperatures as long as the soil is moist regularly. The tradeoff is that these green desirable leaves are more susceptible to pests and damage from slugs. If the climate in an area is not suitable for the crops that an individual wants to grow, then they will not be able to successfully implement companion planting or cyclical agriculture without temperature control or hydroponic assistance.

Water Needs

Water is essential for plant growth. If an area does not have enough water, then it will be difficult to grow crops, even with companion planting or cyclical agriculture. Some small irrigation tools can be purchased from Home Depot or an irrigation specialty company to make the maintenance easier and more consistent.

Additionally, if the water is not of good quality or is applied at a bad time of day, the plants may suffer from too much or too little.

Timing

Watering just before bright and hot sun exposure can do more harm than good due to scorching, wilt, and mildew. Even in the best gardens, mildews, fungi, and other organic processes that we deem undesirable are happening. Planting or pruning a tree at the wrong time can cause the tree to die back or rot, leading to possible problems down the road.

Despite these drawbacks, cyclical agriculture and companion planting can be a sustainable and effective way to grow food. However, if you are considering using these methods, even a little research and planning can go a long way on the road to success.

III. Applications of cyclical agriculture and companion planting to small home gardens

Small home gardens are often very diverse in characteristics. This makes it challenging to find the right balance of effective strategies to maximize the space. Further, it is hard to recommend a specific practice for everyone.

Some gardens struggle simply because sunlight can be limited. Some are limited because of temperature changes or strong variability. Even a few degrees in temperature can change germination times for seeds or cause frost to destroy a crop before they are hardy enough to withstand the cold.

Next we’ll learn how to pick and choose which plants to grow, and what method to use.

Image: @happylittlefishes - Tulip bulbs require cool temperatures to stay viable. It is advised to take the bulbs out and refrigerate them over the summer time to prevent their death from exposure to the hot summer sun.

A. Overview of small home gardens (This can be fun!)

Small home gardens are a great way to grow your own food, save money, and connect with nature. They can also be a source of beauty and tranquility. Depending on your personal circumstances, a small garden may simply be a way to enjoy some hands-on nature time, or it may be a full homestead on a large lot. There is a unique approach and set of challenges that face each of these gardeners, but as humans, we are all gardeners nonetheless.

Each aspect of the garden has a realm of possibilities for you to explore. Some have thousands of years of developing history behind them. Some are cutting edge science. You can even participate in citizen science programs if you want to!

Did you know that some gardeners keep seeds and reproduce them for multiple generations to ensure that they have perfect genes and the same thing over and over? Some libraries have heirloom seed deposits that you can contribute to or take from like the one pictured below at the El Modena Library in Orange, CA.

In the world of hot peppers, some plants have been raised over many generations leading to scorching heights and insane scoville unit measurements in the millions (thousands of times hotter than jalapenos).

B. Cyclical Agriculture for Small Gardens

Cyclical agriculture is a system of farming that mimics the natural cycles of the earth. It involves rotating crops, using cover crops, and composting. These practices help to improve soil fertility, water retention, and pest control, but may require more effort. Here we see a garden bed that is 4’ x 8’ and contains freshly planted onions, lettuce, arugula, Kale, Broccoli and more! This is a fresh cool season planting and lets the soil rejuvenate between seasons of plants with greater needs.

Cycling veggies in the garden can lead to times of famine and times of plenty. With some veggies maturing at different rates, it is best to label when each of your sprouts was planted, and estimate what date the produce will be mature to ensure that you get the highest quality and best food possible from your garden.

C. Examples of successful programs and organizations

There are many examples of successful implementation of cyclical agriculture and companion planting in small home gardens. Here are a few:

  • The Rodale Institute is a research and education organization that has been promoting sustainable agriculture for over 70 years. They have a successful program that teaches people how to use cyclical agriculture and companion planting in their home gardens.


  • The Victory Garden Initiative is a non-profit organization that helps people start and maintain victory gardens. Victory gardens were popular during World War II, and they are making a comeback as people look for ways to grow their own food.


  • The National Gardening Association is a non-profit organization that promotes gardening and horticulture. They have a website with resources on cyclical agriculture and companion planting.


  • Naturalist For You is a non-profit that focuses on reconnecting individuals with local wilderness and nature. Although cyclical agriculture and companion planting are not wilderness subjects, Naturalists can help interpret interactions between ecosystems and help individuals come to a deeper understanding with their garden through educational activities and programs.


D. Examples of Bad Companion Choices….

Potatoes and Tomatoes - Both of these are in the Nightshade family. This means that planting these two types of produce together would cause both to compete for the same nutrients in the soil, leading to poor harvests.

Strawberries and Cabbage or other Greens - Strawberries can actually stunt the growth of cauliflower, cabbage, and collared greens because of the soil conditions and space they require. Strawberries like to crawl around.

Cucumbers and Herbs - The delicate flavor of cucumbers can be impacted by the strong flavors that oregano, thyme, and rosemary tend to have.

Onions and Beans - These types of produce require different conditions to be successful. Beans can climb and impact the stalk of the onions and the onions can impact the soil quality required for healthy beans. Overall these two don’t particularly cooperate.

Carrots and Beets - Planting them adjacent to one another can cause space issues. Since both of these are root crops, they will require similar nutrients and may compete with one another for space. However, interspacing rows of these crops would give you the best of both. Just Not when they’re on top of one another. *see the spacing guide.



IV. Conclusion - Tips and Tricks

Cyclical Agriculture and Companion Planting are both strategies that can be used independently of one another, or together in tandem for great harvests of produce year round.

Many gardeners find that the effort invested can lead to amazing returns when properly planned and executed.

Although pests and diseases are two of the most common challenges faced by small home gardeners there are a number of things that small home gardeners can do to prevent and control pests and diseases.

  • Planting resistant varieties of plants

  • Rotating crops seasonally and sometimes three or four times.

  • Encouraging beneficial insects

  • Hand-picking pests (like grasshoppers, slugs, or tomato worms)

  • Using organic pesticides (Neem Oil, Bacillus Thuringiensis - BT, or your own)

It is important to note that not all pests and diseases are bad. Some pests, such as ladybugs, can actually be beneficial to gardens by eating harmful insects like aphids or mites. Additionally, some diseases or conditions can actually help plants to grow stronger when the plant is “coached” through it such as in the case of Powdery Mildew.

Overall, the best way to deal with pests and diseases is to prevent them from happening in the first place. By following the tips above, small home gardeners can reduce the risk of their plants being damaged by pests and diseases.

In addition to the above, here are some other tips for preventing and controlling pests and diseases in your garden:

  • Keep your garden clean and free of weeds. Weeds can harbor pests and diseases, so it is important to remove them regularly.

  • Water your plants properly. Overwatering can lead to problems with fungal diseases, while underwatering can make plants more susceptible to pests that thrive in dry conditions.

  • Fertilize your plants properly. A healthy plant is more resistant to pests and diseases.

  • Monitor your plants regularly. This will help you to identify problems early on, when they are easier to treat and require less effort to eradicate.

  • If you do have a problem with pests or diseases, there are a number of organic methods that you can use to control them.

V: Resources

Harvest to Home offers a ton of information on their website! Using this free information, you can plan for almost any species that grows in Southern California.

Thank you!



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