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Tomatoes & Basil: How Does YOUR Garden Grow?

Companion plants for tomatoes -- not always a perfect pair!

Tomato PlantsLast evening, your friendly and inquisitive Planet Natural Blogger visited a couple of distinguished food writers — they are a couple and have a couple James Beard Awards to their credit — to get their opinions on some local barbecue for a story I’m writing. We ate outdoors in their beautiful patio garden, their chickens serenading us from the nearby coop that was just out of sight.

Their garden is incorporated into the modest outdoor living space. A pair of cherry trees, their growing space circled in rock, is at the center of the stone patio (no cherries this year; a late frost took all the blossoms). Around the first cherry tree were various flowering plants. Only the bleeding hearts were in bloom. The earth around the second tree hosted a variety of herbs, partly shaded, that were just reaching picking size. One of those herbs was basil.

Elsewhere, beans, cucumbers and tomatoes were growing on terraced steps in full sun near the walls of their whitewashed adobe house. By the house’s entrance, among several other plants and close to some lettuce that was already past its prime, was a yellow pear tomato plant already holding some blossoms. The space, with its various pots, growing areas, and walking spaces, not to mention the table where we sat enjoying ribs and brisket, seemed well designed. But I was puzzled by one thing. Knowing that tomatoes and basil, both full-sun lovers, did so well together, I wondered why they weren’t growing side-by-side. “We tried that,” one of my friends said, “and it just didn’t work.”



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Now this seemed to go against what we know. Not only do the plant’s flourish in the same sun and soil conditions, the basil’s oil — its scent — repels aphids and other insects. Some believe that nearby basil increases a tomato plant’s yields. So why would my friends, experienced and knowledgeable people, plant their basil and tomatoes in different places?

They had chosen the warmest brightest spot for their tomatoes and the tomatoes did well there. But the basil didn’t. Here in the high-country Southwest, our growing season is short but intense. And most of our heat comes early, in June, not that long after the date of last frost and before the summer monsoons. The heat that was fine for young tomato plants was just too much for the basil. My friends had found that the herb did better if planted in a cooler spot with a little afternoon shade. In other words, under one of the cherry trees.

That got your often puzzled PN Blogger thinking. Knowing all the rules and tips and common wisdom about companion planting is one thing. How it’s applied to your particular garden’s growing conditions is another. Having lived among a variety of gardening conditions — long season, short season; wet and dry, hot and cool, sunny and cloudy — we’ve learned to find and place plants in our garden in spots that give them the best possible conditions. Sometimes, due to the slope of the land, the amount of sunlight or its proximity to light reflecting, heat holding surfaces, we’ve ended up going against the common wisdom. Finding the best conditions for plants in your particular micro-climate comes with experience and can take a few seasons. Once you’ve figured it out, take advantage as best you can while considering crop rotation, changing soil conditions, and all the other variables that make garden an exciting challenge.

And isn’t that what makes gardening so fascinating and rewarding? Learning about your space, as well as the plants you’re growing and all the local conditions that affect them, makes us more conscious of our environment. Yes, it’s a process of trial and error. And, as one deep thinker says, it’s the errors that yield rewards. Do you face any specific conditions that affect — against the common wisdom — where and when you plant? For the record: our basil does just fine right next to where we’re growing tomatoes.