If you have delighted in the pictures of our hemp crops we previously shared with you, you likely noticed sunflowers bordering some of our valuable plants. While those sunflowers add a vibrant yellow color to our fields, our main purpose is not to improve the aesthetics of our farm. Rather, sunflowers function as remarkable and beneficial companion plants that support the healthy growth of our hemp cultivars. This concept of companion planting plays a crucial role as we grow our crops each year.
As our wonderful hemp crop matures, our fields are rich in green colors. But look closer and you will find a rainbow of hues speckling our farm. In addition to those bright yellow sunflowers, you will also encounter corn and annual flowers around most of our fields.
What Is Companion Planting?
Take a walk in the wilds and you find a variety of flora congregating and flourishing together. This is companion planting as practiced by nature. For farmers and gardeners, companion planting is more deliberate but the results are similar: hardier and healthier growth for all plants involved in the process!
Describing companion planting is quite simple. Companion planting is the practice of growing two or more different plant species in close proximity for the benefit of one or all plants. In your home garden, it’s not uncommon to plant multiple crops in the same area. Sometimes one crop matures faster than the other; this helps to maximize the growth space in your small backyard. Often, though, companion plants support each other during the growth stage.
At Fern Valley Farms, our focus is cultivating premium quality hemp cultivars for our valued customers. So in our case, we seek out plants that are beneficial to our hemp crops.
Companion Planting: An Ancient Agricultural Practice
Companion planting is not new. A classic example of companion planting is the “three sisters” model originating in Mesoamerica hundreds of years ago. The “three sisters” are corn, dry beans, and winter squash. Here is how those three vegetable staples support each other during the growing season:
- Corn – offers a natural stalk for pole beans to grow upon; it also serves as a visual deterrent for invasive squash insects
- Dry Beans – provide nitrogen to help plants produce amino acids, protein, and even DNA while enriching the soil for future crops
- Winter Squash – the large squash leaves shade the soil, keeping it cool and helping retain moisture
The above example illustrates how these important vegetables form a strategic relationship to support communal growth and production. Do note that this vegetable sisterhood relies on dry beans (such as pole beans) and winter squash. Both of these vegetables can be stored throughout the winter season, whereas summer squash and green beans have a short shelf life.
All three vegetables – corn, dry beans, and winter squash – not only store well but are loaded with calories, proteins, and vitamins. These three sisters established the perfect subsistence diet for the lean winter months. Fishing and hunting, sparer during the cold season, supplemented their “three sisters” meals when successful.
Companion Plants for Hemp
We already mentioned that we seek out “one-way” companion plants that directly benefit our hemp plants. Certainly, companion planting will also benefit those supporting plants. However, we will focus on how the hemp in our “garden” benefits from companion planting.
On our farm, we planted two major companion plants to support our hemp crop. Additionally, we added a few annual flowering plants to our fields.
As one of the original three sisters, we already know that corn grows tall. While hemp doesn’t need a natural trellis, bordering fields with corn provides natural protection from harsh winds. As the ears of corn mature, pests find the sweet smell more attractive than the stronger hemp aromas. Consequently, corn serves as a natural pest repellent for the hemp crop!
Corn is also beneficial to the environment. As it grows, it absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This action helps to increase carbon levels in the soil. Increased carbon levels supports better water infiltration, reduces surface runoff, improves nutrient cycling, and lessens the likelihood of soil compaction.
These reasons make corn an excellent choice for companion planting with hemp!
During early months, sunflowers grow swiftly while providing protection from wind and cover from direct sunlight. While their sturdiness and height are obvious reasons for bordering patches of our hemp crop, their bright yellow flower heads do more than catch our eye. This plant is quite effective at attracting damaging pests like aphids, slugs, snails, and whiteflies.
Once these sunflowers mature, those flower heads are chock full of seeds. We could harvest and eat them but we instead offer those seeds to the local bird population. This may seem like a generous gesture to the wildlife of Oregon but there is a selfish reason for leaving those seeds to the birds. Any pests seeking to dine on our hemp crop will instead become the Blue Plate Special for these feasting birds! So we feed the birds twice: plant-based sunflower seeds are their main course with side dishes of live insects!
Obviously, sunflowers are another sure thing when it comes to companion planting with hemp!
Finally, you can find annual flowers like zinnias planted sporadically around our farm.
These colorful flowers do more than dazzle the eye. Most annual flowers produce nectar or pollen to attract pollinators, including bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Annual flowers also can be effective magnets to lure pests away from hemp plants.
We know that we don’t have to incorporate companion planting on our farm. In fact, most hemp farms don’t bother with it. In the larger picture though, it only takes a little extra time and effort and we believe the result to be well worthwhile!