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What is Symbiotic Gardening? (Explanation and Examples)

A large vegetable garden.

Discover the magic and science of symbiotic gardening, the secret roles of different plants to each other and learn to create your own symbiotic garden.

Plants know what they need to survive and thrive. They couple together in the wild all the time, and it’s up to us to observe those relationships and understand why they operate better together. Much like how fungi are fundamental in forest health. Fungi feed off of decaying matter and turn it into healthy soil, which will host new life, which will die, and be recycled by fungi once more. One could not thrive without the other.

I once attempted symbiotic gardening on my own balcony garden (read about the greenhouse I chose here). After loads and loads of research, I discovered all of the marvelous groupings that can be made to help the garden thrive all on its own. All it needed from me was attention and water. Today I wanted to share what I learned in hopes that it would encourage others to thoughtfully plan out next seasons’ garden of goodies.

Types of Symbiosis

Symbiosis comes from greek words σύν sún which means “together”, and βίωσις bíōsis which means “living”. This occurs when 2 or more living organisms live in very close proximity and share a relationship that benefits 1 or more parties. There are 3 types of symbiosis:

Commensalism: this relationship occurs when one organism benefits from the relationship, and the other organism is pretty well unaffected.

Example: a shellfish using a shell as a protective home, or a spider spinning its web in a tree.

Parasitism: this type of relationship is detrimental to one of the organisms. One organism thrives, while the other is often left for dead. (About 40% of all animal species are considered parasites!)

Example: ticks attaching to animals, tapeworms stealing nutrients, aphids feeding on sap.

Mutualism: when each organism entirely benefits from the pairing.

Example: a pet and human relationship, or squash-pole bean-corn companioning.

A school of fish in a rice paddy.

Symbiotic Gardening

When it comes to gardening practices, a mutually symbiotic relationship is what we will be looking for. But remember, even when these relationships are beneficial to other plant species, certain plants are lethal to pests! The cycle of life is never without the death of something.

Three Sisters Gardening

A simple term to use is “vegetable companion planting”, and a very well known grouping is with pole bean, squash, and corn. This relationship is better known as “the three sisters”, and is a growing practice that has been practiced by First Nations people for centuries. A wonderful botanist named Robin Wall Kimmerer has a book titled Braiding Sweetgrasswhich speaks at great length about three sisters gardening, as well as many other symbiotic plant relationships.

A planter garden with corn and squash.

Three Sisters – corn is beneficial to the pole bean as it provides a climbing lattice, the pole bean shades the squash, and the squash shades the ground and prevents weeds from growing which benefits all three organisms.

This is the epitome of symbiotic gardening, as it shows how plants are able to support one another. The fewer humans interfere, and the more they pay attention to how plants like to be paired, the more fruitful the harvest will be.

Planning Relationships

There are several things that need to be present in a healthy garden. So many varying conditions, pests, and combinations can make a garden extremely vulnerable. Knowing the ways in which plants can support each other will benefit everyone involved. Things to be mindful of are: plants that suppress weeds, plants that create shade, plants that deter birds, plants that deter insects, plants that attract pollinators, and plants that encourage soil health.

Weed Suppressing Plants

Clusters of flowering wisteria plants at a garden.

Weeds thrive off of sunlight, and a way to combat that is with plants whose leaves occur close to the earth and cover lots of surface area. The top options for weed suppression are:

  • squash
  • sweet potatoes
  • pink lily of the valley
  • other vine type plants with wide leaves

Shade Creating Plants

A close look at a combination of plants that produce shade.

Not only do taller plants help create shade so that vulnerable plants closer to the earth don’t get scorched by the sun, but they also act as climbing latices for climbing plants.

  • sunflowers (shade)
  • Jerusalem artichokes (shade)
  • passionflower (climb)
  • morning glory (climb)

Bird Deterrers

A close look at a mulberry tree.

There are few things more disappointing than attending to your garden only to find your nearly ripe fruits and vegetables have been annihilated by gophers or birds. Mulberry bushes aren’t the typical first choice for human consumption, but it is a far easier berry to eat than blueberries. The mulberry bush will be the first meal choice for a bird, and they’ll hopefully stay away from your figs and tomatoes.

Insect Control

A bunch of various herbs in a wooden crate.

Spraying precious plants with insecticide should never be the first option when it comes to dealing with pests. Plants are literally designed to deal with these kinds of issues, and we should be taking notes from them. Oftentimes fragrant herbs will deter insects, which is beneficial for humans since these are all lovely scents:

  • mint
  • lemon balm
  • onion
  • marigold
  • lavender
  • rosemary
  • citronella grass (what bug spray smells like!)

Attracting Pollinators

Clusters of large yellow orange flowers.

This is one of the most important symbiotic relationships, as the health of bee colonies is the crux of the entire food chain. Bees need places to collect nectar, and plants need bees in order to reproduce. It’s a win-win situation for everything on the planet, and bees need all of the help they can get right now.

Encourage Soil Health

A look at freshly-harvested root crops.

Root vegetables are essential to soil health, as their deep root systems can access all of the wonderful nutrients that exist deep in the soil, and may have been damaged on the topsoil levels.

Comfrey: is a deep-rooted plant that can reach all of the lovely minerals the exist in the soil. Minerals Ca, N, K, and P are absorbed through the roots which is found in the leaves of the comfrey plant. Once the leaves shed in autumn, they will eventually turn into an incredibly nutrient-rich mulch for the following season.

A close look blooming purple comfrey.

Nitrogen is fundamental in soil health, and members of the legume family will aid in that process after feeders have had their way with a garden. Legumes that introduce nitrogen to the soil:

A close look at clusters of sprouting alfalfa.

Curious about more specific pairings of symbiotic gardening relationships? Check out this list of 27 Vegetables and Herbs: Combinations For a Happy Garden.

FAQ

Is symbiotic gardening better?

It would be difficult to argue any other method of gardening. Almost everything in existence functions better as a community, and symbiotic gardening is a prime example as that. Plants with certain properties can support others who have less of that property, and vice versa.

What is an example of symbiotic gardening?

Three sisters is a very well known example of symbiotic gardening. Corn, beans, and squash are all planted in unison to support one another.

Where can I plant a symbiotic garden?

Literally, anywhere there is soil. Symbiotic plant relationships can exist absolutely anywhere.

When was a symbiotic garden first used?

Symbiotic plant relationships have existed in nature since the beginning of time. It is difficult to say when they were first brought into human practice, but it was probably around the time humans shifted from hunter-gatherer society to an agriculture farming practicing society.

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