Intercropping 101: What you need to know

intercropping garden

Specific crops planted together can benefit from one another and help the farmer save space. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

One of the primary challenges for farmers today is to increase their output per hectare in a sustainable way. You have probably heard of intercropping by now – a trend in sustainable farming practices. But what exactly is it?

Nelly Komape from Parys in the Free State is here to tell us about intercropping: how it works, how it doesn’t work and the benefits of intercropping.

Komape coordinates food gardens at 19 schools in the Free State and also compiles curriculums to integrate gardening into teaching and learning activities.  This is where she is learning and implementing new agriculture techniques.

Nelly Komape’s desire to be an example to her community and to help feed those in need, resulted in the birth of a sizeable backyard garden feeding members of her community. Photo: Supplied/Shoprite

Komape has also turned her sizeable backyard into a community garden which she calls Mmakomape Home Gardening. Here she plants the way her mother and grandmother used to plant – by putting different plants that benefit from one another in one bed.

“My mom used to do this,” Komape says. “But because we didn’t have the academic term, we just said we are mixing our crops.”

What is intercropping?

Intercropping is a practice that Komape’s mother, and other farmers and gardeners, have been doing since agriculture was born.

“My mom would plant maize, which goes up, and she would also plant beans and watermelon and pumpkin with it,” says Komape. “The beans will grab on the stem of the maize and grow up like that.

“The watermelon needs shade, and pumpkins need to be covered as well,” she explains. “The leaves of the maize will give the watermelon and the pumpkin shade to grow in.” This is a combination of plants that Komape highly recommends for South African farmers.

Cabbages surrounded by companion plants in a food garden. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Planting different types of crops that benefit each other in one space, is the crux of intercropping. Intercropping is not a careless congregation of different plants. Some things just don’t belong together.

“There are rules of intercropping,” Komape says. “You can’t just plant crops together. For example, family plants.”

Let’s take tomatoes, eggplants and potatoes – they are all from the nightshade family, so they don’t work well for intercropping.

Usually, plants from the same family use similar nutrients, attract similar pests and are susceptible to similar diseases. Intercropping with things from the same family could lead to soil nutrient depletion and encourage troublesome insects and illnesses.

What are the benefits of intercropping?

Another form of intercropping is row intercropping, where crops of different kinds are planted in rows alongside each other. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

If you plant different crops together that benefit from one another, you save space and resources, for example when beans and pumpkins grow with maize. Instead of having to build structures for the beans to climb, or shade for the pumpkins, plant maize to provide these.

Another example of intercropping that Komape mentions is onions between spinach. The onion is used as a pest repellent and keeps the spinach pest-free, helping you save on unnecessary pesticides.

The space-saving benefit of intercropping is crucial for farmers with only small areas available to plant their crops.

“I would plant onion with garlic and spinach in one bed,” says Komape. “In that way I have saved a lot of space. Where I would have needed three beds, I am using only one bed.”

Things to consider if you want to try intercropping:

Whenever two or more crops are planted together, they will compete for light, water and nutrients. Therefore, they could have a negative or a positive influence on each other. Intercropping is about finding crops that work well together to benefit the land and the farmer.

Including crops and herbs that help repel insects, such as onions and garlic, is always a good start for intercropping.

Certain companion plants are used to keep pests away from your main crop. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Look for plants with similar water needs to group together. And consider how the plants might affect each other’s sunlight. Shade isn’t always a bad thing, but it might be for the wrong plant.

Choose plants with different root systems and different growth rates. That will prevent them from competing against each other for nutrients, possibly at crucial points in their development.

Find information on the best and worst companion plants here. Cape Contours also has a list of companion plants that you can find here.

ALSO READ: Six tips to thrive as a serious township farmer

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