Maintaining Companion Planting Techniques while Mechanizing in Diverse, Small-Farm Vegetable Operations

Project Overview

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2010: $6,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2012
Region: North Central
State: Iowa
Project Coordinator:
Rob Faux
Genuine Faux Farm

Annual Reports

Information Products

FNC10-814 (Multimedia)


  • Agronomic: potatoes
  • Fruits: melons
  • Vegetables: beans, beets, broccoli, cabbages, leeks, onions, radishes (culinary), rutabagas, cucurbits, turnips, brussel sprouts
  • Additional Plants: herbs, ornamentals


  • Crop Production: double cropping, intercropping, multiple cropping
  • Education and Training: on-farm/ranch research
  • Natural Resources/Environment: biodiversity
  • Pest Management: cultural control, integrated pest management, prevention
  • Production Systems: organic agriculture


    This project’s purpose was to identify field planning techniques to integrate mechanization while maintaining companion planting (intercropping) practices on a small farm that raises diverse vegetable crops. The first year of the project focused on the identification of appropriate tools needed to scale up the operation and implement new spacing techniques for intercropping. A study was piloted in the first year to compare new spacings with established intercropping spacings that had exhibited benefits on the farm in prior years. The pilot provided input to adjust the spacings and the study parameters so that a treatment/control study could be performed on two cash crop pairings: beans/potatoes and brassica family/allia family.

    Results Abstract

    The results of this project may be divided into three portions:
    1. The identification of tools to scale-up the operation and the corresponding spacings for cash crops that are intercropped in a diverse vegetable operation.
    2. The development of a treatment/control study for two separate crop type pairings.
    3. The implementation of the study for two separate crop type pairings.

    This project implemented equipment using a smaller, category 1 tractor with standard Ford or Massey 8n tire spacing. Many operations looking to scale up may find it easiest to take the first steps with a tractor of this size, thus a 40 inch wide seed bed was identified with 60 inches from the outside of one wheel to the other. Companions typically were placed 8 inches from the edge of the 40 inch bed, providing a 24 inch gap between the companion plants within the seed bed. The distance between companions in different beds was approximately 28-30 inches.

    The first year of the project was spent identifying new spacings and attempting to implement them on as many companion crop sets as was feasible. Each set was implemented in a field where the South half maintained the farms traditional spacing techniques. These served as a control for the project and have been developed and used by the farm for several years to take advantage of the smaller tools in its possession. New spacings were explored for vine crops and their companions, brassica and allia, potatoes and beans, tomatoes and basil. It was determined that the new spacings for the potatoes/beans and brassica/allia would be appropriate for a treatment/control study – with the treatment being the new spacings developed in year one versus the traditional spacings used by the farm in prior years. This study was intended to measure the companion benefits, the potential labor savings and the crop yield.

    The second year of the project allowed us to test new spacing techniques with the equipment we acquired and learned to use in year one. Only minor modifications were needed from year one in order to respond to issues discovered in the process of working the fields. As a result, we were able to collect data between the control (our prior spacing methods) and the treatment (new spacing methods). As with most research projects, this one may have done a better job isolating more questions than it did answering them. However, we do feel we have made great strides in identifying some companion cash crop spacings that could be used by growers looking to scale up. We have adopted many of these spacings in our future plans with some modifications. Results were compelling enough for the farm to adopt the new spacing for potatoes and beans, but results for brassica/allia require more development.


    Description of Project Purpose

    Mechanization has been developed primarily in response to the labor intensive nature of farming. As a result, farming systems have become more reliant on monoculture systems in order to take full advantage of equipment that is often developed for specific crop requirements. Even equipment intended for smaller farms with diverse operations has a tendency to force isolation of one cash crop from another.

    Companion planting techniques have been used by growers for generations. The potential for pest control and improved ecosystem health with a diverse planting fits organic principles well. Further, success with companion planting can significantly reduce reliance on outside inputs. But, the requirements for plant spacing make it difficult to scale up an operation for commercial implementation. This holds true even for small farms that focus on direct sales with a diverse product. The varying requirements of companions seem to place a ceiling on production amounts due to inordinate labor requirements.

    The purpose of this research was to attempt to find a balance between labor and companion planting benefits by introducing mechanization with proper planning and implements.

    Project Importance

    Companion planting techniques are a large part of the legacy knowledge passed down through the generations. Recent research is beginning to show support for the empirical knowledge. Sunflowers have been shown to reduce thrips problems in peppers (SARE Project Number: FSOI-140). Companion crops have shown statistically significant control of cucumber beetles in cucurbits (SARE Project Number: LS01-127). We have our own (non-scientific) research and observation that tell us bean and potatoes, brassica and allium, tomato and basil, borage, zinnia and melons are all good companions for various reasons. Companion plants can be another cash crop, a trap crop, or a host crop. Benefits can take the form of pest control through masking, repellant or attractant properties. Other benefits may be through beneficial chemical sharing or the ability of one crop to be a nurse crop for another. Some benefits may be as simple as providing a natural wind block for a crop that is more susceptible to strong winds. Regardless of direct companion planting benefits, a diverse and complimentary system leads to healthier growing conditions that do not require additional inputs.

    The Genuine Faux Farm is dedicated to maintaining companion planting practices but has found it difficult to continue with companion plants due to production challenges brought about by the scale of the operation. The root of the problem appears to be based on weed control issues. Companion crops often have different spacing and planting requirements. As a result, most cultivation is performed using hand tools, which can be effective if the available labor pool can complete the task within the window of opportunity for controlling weed establishment. However, weather conditions in recent years have provided limited windows for cultivation, mulch application and other weed control techniques. Once a canopy is developed by the companions, weed control is no longer a major issue. But, planting times may differ between companions, which add further complications to the cultivation plan. Failure to control weeds in companion planted fields reduces the effectiveness of the companion effect and decreases crop yields.

    Rearranging already complex planting plans for new tools was difficult, but a worthwhile exercise. New plans considered companion plant benefits, rotation issues and production requirements. It was possible that any such plans would either negate benefits of companions or fail to result in any labor reduction or weed control benefits. It was important to integrate the tool(s) and the plan in stages to avoid possible crop failures due to failure to properly implement new systems. The farm did not wish to add reliance on a new tool that failed to provide improvement to the overall success of the operation.

    Discussion with other growers of a similar size revealed that most have not considered companion planting. In most cases, this has more to do with a lack of information on successful companions. On the other hand, planning for and executing systems with companions is a difficult task. Growers of this size will not adopt a new practice if the perception is that it will introduce inefficiency to a system that is already difficult to maintain. It is our belief that we could convince others to include companion planting in their growing techniques if we are able to illustrate methods that can be adopted with acceptable changes in current systems. It is possible that successes in this area could reduce reliance on chemical applications for pest control.

    Project objectives:

    2011 Objectives

    1. Identify and Trial spacings that might work with new equipment
    2. Identify crops to be tested with spacing differences
    3. Identify equipment and source equipment.
    4. Learn the use of the equipment and trial equipment with identified spacings.
    5. Trial data collection techniques for intercropping effects.
    6. Maintain qualitative records throughout 2011 season to allow for changes in 2012 season application of project.
    7. Identify two sets of cash crops to study in the second year of the project. Confirm the study methods by piloting the structure in 2011.

    2012 Objectives

    1. Implement spacings (both treatment and control) for identified crop sets
    2. Utilize equipment sourced for project
    3. Collect data on intercropping effects.
    4. Compare results between treatment and control sections of project
    5. Collect qualitative records regarding the process and observed issues with the project.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.