Companion Crops

Companion Crops

Although it may seem counterintuitive for gardeners and farmers to attract insects, the trend of planting companion crops for attracting beneficial insects and repelling undesirable ones is gaining ground. Under guidance from the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and Florida A&M University (FAMU) a few smaller growers in the Tallahassee area are undertaking this option to aid in attracting pollinators to their crops and repelling pests. ARS and FAMU scientists are demonstrating through field experimentation and technical presentations the benefits of planting companion crops.

They have been experimenting with pairing sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima), an herbaceous, flowering annual with agriculturally important crops to lure beneficial insects which prey on pests that target crops. The researchers and growers are also exploring the benefits of planting “trap crops” alongside cash crops. A trap crop repels pests, deterring them from the crop of concern; these are companion crops that can be planted next to the main crop to lure pests away where they can then safely be controlled with pesticides, biocontrols, manual removal or another method.

The organic growers and farmers in the Tallahassee area are becoming increasingly more dependent on an IPM regime that includes biocontrol agents and companion cropping. The farmers in this area are moving towards sustainability, a concept important to the restaurants, local chefs and farmers’ markets to whom they sell.

Since 2008 FAMU’s Center for Biological Control (CBC) has been demonstrating the principles and benefits of IPM to farmers, growers, home gardeners, students and other interested parties. The Red Hills Small Farms Alliance has been an active participant in these demonstrations and helps get the word out to their members. Some members of the alliance have begun using sweet alyssum and buckwheat to buoy hoverfly populations after they had been released as a biological control agent for whiteflies and aphids. Hoverflies are especially attracted to the nectar produced  by companion plants.

Similar projects are ongoing at Turkey Hill Farm in Tallahassee and Crescent Moon Farm in Sopchoppy, FL where they are releasing beneficial spined soldier bugs. Data collected through these experimental programs will also be used to analyze the cost effectiveness of companion cropping and its impact on pest populations. Additional benefits are incurred through paired plantings including; providing shade for less sun tolerant plants, possibly improving structural integrity and support for some species as well as allowing them to come up off the ground and out of reach of potential predators (as in beans on corn stalks, or climbing tomato vines), out-competing weeds, nutrient sharing and improved acquisition (i.e. nitrogen-fixing bean plants paired with squash) and increased organic matter.

This is a system that had been used historically by Native Americans and other civilizations before the advent of pesticides and fertilizer, improvements and advances to agricultural have moved away from what appears to be nature’s buddy system and maybe it is time to return to the basics.