Companion planting retro-masterclass.
When credit is due, I must try harder to give it freely! And so it is with Gertrud Franck. Thankyou. I’m going to try to do a short review on her work, and try to do it justice! Have you read a review of any 1980’s books recently??
Companion Planting – Successful gardening the organic way.
Why would this book be a game changer? Why did I run out and scour the e-worlds bookshelves for every copy I could find? (I now have four copies, -looking for more) Well she starts the book with a notion I’ve come to respect immensely –
“The system of gardening presented in words and pictures in this book, is based on more than thirty years of observation and practical experience.”
My kind of farmer! From there the title says it all – and more than you think. Have you ever read an article on companion planting reduced down to “..carrots love tomatoes..” or “..tomato loves basil..”? It’s not that kind of book! Without as much ado as this reviews introduction she capably outlines her generations worth of work creating herself as companion to her garden. She eventually earnt a mastery of not reducing but expanding the context of simple plant relationships in a vege garden. How do we know it worked? Her garden got more fertile every year, she only had to deal with insects that came from outside her system, and never had any true weed issues. She almost never bought in anything called fertiliser! Crop rotations are redundant! Insects are celebrated! I have a sneaking suspicion her family was very healthy too.
This very large departure from simple two-value relationship statements is profound to. Before she gets to explaining how her garden works, she takes us on a concise walk-through of the gardening year, from the perspective that the dinner table demands, and our seasonal social life obliges, and our community involvements, all eventually determine our attitude to organic gardening.
How does Gertuds garden grow??
Like a mess really. A bit like a Precision European market gardener who has his transplants in perfect soldier-lines. A little like the Japanese ‘natural-way’ farmers, planting one crop on top of the other, repeatedly! Even the forest-garden techniques would be well imbibed in her grasp of plant (and root) architecture, mixing height and shape and colour and scent… Confused? I was until I saw a example of her technique. Here’s the crux of the system:
1. Big gross feeders, trellis crops.
2. shorter gross feeding plants with indeterminate harvests,
3. smaller, short season and low stature plants.
Thats how she breaks down what to plant in what row! Basic! Rows are all a standard distance of 50cm apart. Translate plants from those ‘groups’ into this repeating pattern:
1 – 3 – 2 – 3 – 1 – 3 – 2 – 3 – 1
A quick example from her book:
Tomatos – carrots – cauliflower – lettuce – zucchini
Consider the physical architecture of the vegetable plants in those groups. She’s given them space and light and air, and shelter, warmth, and so moisture and life!
Not done yet! The planting periods of these vegetables are matched to their canopy and nutrient needs as the the harvests of each group come close. 50cm apart? is that all? In the next growing season, she moves the whole system over 25cm. Heres something special:
Each of the dashes in the above “group-number” schema represents either a dense planting of spinach or mustard. Spinach is a superb dynamic accumulator of minerals, has a massive fibrous root mass, exudes root sugars, has a fleshy leaf with loads of sticky sap and tastes good! Mustard – breaks down super fast, breaks down hot with tangy mustard goodness that drives off a whole host of soil pests. It germinates with a clockwork precision, anywhere. Yes, these fill ALL of the gaps. These ‘dash’ plantings are weight-bearing green pathways, they are sacrificial crops. They are living mulch. They are fertiliser. They add the ‘eco’ to the ‘system’. The dash crop is planted nearly before everything else is even a seed in a packet. These plantings are then, also 50cm apart, and form neat guides to your vegetable layouts. Yes, the layout is remarkably compact, and productive! (Surely in these times that might entice a little more investigation??)
Too complex for you? I realise I’m desribing a system with letters and dashes. But just wait until you see it in the ground! It’s a most beautifual cacophany of growth that lets every vegetable in Gertruds garden have it’s day in the sun. It maximises the sunlight that good vege craves and eliminates most all human ego and disdain for the concept that –
Nature is robust!
As if it stopped there!
Mrs Gertrud Franck then, decides to spend a few chapters integrating fruit trees into this mix, and follows with a chapter on managing animals, weeds, flowers and shrubs. Once that is done, she covers nutrition in vegetables, and medicinal herbs, recycling and composting, and so on. I get the impression she’d have attempted to create a pattern for healthy human beings in this book if let leave to. I’d have read it too! In all this her writing style is as curt and economical as you’d expect of a german, agriculturalist, home-maker, philosopher, research scientist, hoe-swinging, chook-gutting, lady.
I’ve grown to her methods, and will again, why? They were the best fruits for the least effort and the most fun and wonder of any crops I ever grew. I like the ‘wonder’ – this system enables fascination in the natural world, not frustration in our trying to dominate it. Since the first chapter, this book taught me hard truths about taking preconceptions and crappy planning out into the paddock. I dont have thirty years of experience yet to implement Gertruds garden as pretty as I’d like, but from the best vegetables, come the best things in life.
Yes I have copies to loan, I could even dig up a scan copy of this book. Any takers?
“You may pitchfork Nature out but she’ll come back again”