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

    Proposal summary:

    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 have 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 is to attempt to find a balance between labor and companion planting benefits by introducing mechanization with proper planning and implements.

    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 is finding 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.

    The farm has recently added a small tractor (Ford 8n19n) to its pool of available tools. The intent is to use the tractor to decrease time in initial bed preparation and to address the problem with the small window for weed control. However, it is difficult finding the proper implements to do the cultivation work. Further, any tools we acquire will require changes in spacing that may adversely affect the benefits from the companion plants.

    Rearranging already complex planting plans for new tools will be difficult. New plans must consider companion plant benefits, rotation issues and production requirements. It is possible that any such plans will either negate benefits of companions or fail to result in any labor reduction or weed control benefits. It is 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 does not wish to add reliance on a new tool that does not actually result in an improvement to the overall health of the operation.

    Discussion with other growers of a similar size reveals 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.

    Research Plan:
    • Research Question: Can companion planting spacing and successions be modified in such a way as to add weed control mechanization without negatively impacting the benefits of the companions and reduce the labor resources required?
    • Scope: This study will be implemented on six of seven planting plots in the farm's seven year rotation and three of four plots in the four year rotation. Most annual vegetable crops produced by the farm and their companions will be included.
    • Control: Half of each plot will be planted using planting plans similar to prior year models.
    • Treatment: Half of each plot will have spacing changed to respond to the needs of the equipment used for cultivation and other weed control.
    • Variables: The independent variable will be the inclusion of mechanized cultivation by altering the planting spacing and succession plan to allow for its use. Dependent variables include labor costs, weed pressure and yield.
    • Controlling External Variables: Treatments such as cultivation, mulch, irrigation, etc will be undertaken on each half of a field in the same time frame. Cultivar choices will be consistent in each field half A flower border will typically provide a barrier between the halves of the field. Some tasks, however, cannot be completely paralleled since that is part of the point of this study. However, situations where tasks differ will be recorded.
    • Control for Learning Curve: It is expected that some of the initial spacing selections and cultivation choices will not be optimal. The first year's results will be evaluated and modified for year two in an effort to address observed problems with the new techniques. Two years of observations should reduce any variability due to our own learning. This is also useful to negate the impact of any adverse or positive weather conditions on observations.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    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.

    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.