As a gardening expert and educator who has spent over twenty years cultivating Wisconsin’s diverse landscapes, I’ve learned the power of letting nature take some control when growing thriving, resilient vegetable gardens. Companion planting is one of my favorite techniques that harnesses the innate intelligence of ecosystems—strategically selecting complementary plants to grow together so they can mutually benefit each other.
When done thoughtfully, intermingling specific companion plants with your main crop can help deter pests, attract beneficial insects, improve flavor, enhance growth, and even increase nutrients. After experimenting extensively with companion planting over many growing seasons, I’ve dialed in some fail-proof combinations that work exceptionally well for one of my favorite crops: the venerable, versatile kale.
So, for alkaline and kale lovers, here is my guide to the best companion plants for unlocking nature’s secret to flourishing, abundant gardens filled with healthy, happy kale.
- 1 Understanding Kale’s Growing Needs
- 2 Enlisting Floral Bodyguards: Pest-Fighting Flowers
- 3 Herbs Offer Aromatic Protection
- 4 Let Legumes Feed Your Kale
- 5 Friends with Benefits: Flowers Bringing Pollinators & Predators
- 6 Companion Planting Strategies for Success
- 7 Continued Care for Kale Health
- 8 The Circle of Life: Returning Fallen Greens as Nutritious Resources
- 9 Parting Words: Revelations from the Kale Patch
Understanding Kale’s Growing Needs
While kale is known for being a relatively unfussy, cold-hardy vegetable that can withstand frosty conditions, providing the proper care and environment will still ensure the best growth and production. Here is a quick overview of kale’s ideal growing requirements:
Kale thrives in nutrient-dense, well-draining soil with plenty of organic matter. Maintain a pH between 6.0 and 7.0 and use organic fertilizers, such as compost, to feed your plants.
Sun Exposure & Temperature
Most kale grows best in full sun, while some varieties tolerate partial shade. It thrives in excellent conditions, ideally between 60-75°F during the day and above 50°F at night.
Consistent moisture is vital, especially for young plants. Use mulch to help retain soil moisture and water kale evenly and frequently so the soil remains moist but not soaked.
With those basic needs covered, look at how strategic companion planting can take your kale growth to the next level by promoting plant health through pest control, added nutrients, and improved biodiversity.
Enlisting Floral Bodyguards: Pest-Fighting Flowers
One of the most potent benefits companion plants provide is leveraging their natural pest-repelling abilities to protect more vulnerable crops like kale. Certain brightly-hued flowers are champions in keeping tiny intruders away from your brassicas.
Marigolds: Vibrant Guardians
Few companion plants rival cheery marigolds (Tagetes species) for sheer pest-fighting power, thanks to the natural chemical compounds in their roots and flowers. With their dense, low-spreading foliage and flames of red, orange, and yellow blossoms, marigolds confuse and deter destructive root nematodes, beetles, aphids, whiteflies, and other bothersome bugs looking for tender kale leaves to devour.
Simply interplant marigold seeds or seedlings around the outer edges of your kale patch, allowing them to spread as a protective living shield. Marigolds keep pests at bay and bloom in different seasons, providing non-stop protection. As a bonus, these pretty guardians help make any garden look even more inviting!
Nasturtiums: Traps for Beneficial Insects
Like marigolds, brightly colored annual and perennial nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) lure insects harming kale by attracting beneficial predatory insects to your garden—a handy biological deterrent! As a trap crop, nasturtiums are irresistible to pests like aphids, whiteflies, and cucumber beetles. Yet while they munch away, beneficial ladybugs, lacewings, and ground beetles also arrive to feast, providing free round-the-clock pest control.
For maximum effect, use nasturtiums as a border enclosing your kale garden, allowing them to spill out to lure invasive insects away from your kale. The leaves and flowers of nasturtiums are also edible, providing a tangy, peppery taste that makes delightful salad garnish!
Herbs Offer Aromatic Protection
When it comes to herbs, aromatic herbs are like weapons when guarding kale crops, as their strong scents repel hungry pests looking for their next meal.
Rosemary & Dill: Scented Warriors
Bushy rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and tall, ferny dill plants release oils that provide a protective shield, repelling pesky-winged intruders like whiteflies, mosquitos, cabbage moths, and aphids. As a bonus, using these pungently perfumed herbs in your kitchen also boosts the antioxidant content of recipes like roasted kale chips!
For maximum impact, plant shorter dill varieties towards the center of your planting bed near kale, while taller rosemary forms an aromatic border on the outer edges.
Basil: Sweet-Smelling Pest Fighter
Sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum) is a longtime herbal combatant used in gardens big and small for its culinary qualities and as a gentle insect repellent, releasing chemicals onslaughts of tiny insects detest. With over 60 varieties offering a range of tastes and fragrances, the options for this flavorful defender are nearly endless! This visually appealing companion’s attractive leaves and flowers also provide contrast and biodiversity to your edible garden oasis. Plant basil liberally around and amongst your kale as the perfect aromatic, edible bodyguard.
Let Legumes Feed Your Kale
In addition to their role as tough plant protectors, specific flowers and plants also bolster growth by providing nutrients to your kale using their natural symbiotic powers.
Peas & Beans: Nitrogen-Fixing Partners
Plant breeders and gardeners have been intermingling legumes and brassicas for ages thanks to an ingenious trick soil bacteria provide these plants: the ability to absorb free nitrogen from the air and convert it into a plant-usable form. By planting pole bean varieties, bush beans, shelling peas, and snap peas near your kale, you provide a rich, renewable source of essential nitrogen these leafy greens crave, thanks to the beneficial root nodulation of these legumes.
Pole beans, like ‘Scarlet Runner,’ have twining vines that make excellent climbing structures for vining kale varieties. The living trellis supports vertical growth, and beans planted amidst kales increase available soil nitrogen and require similar cultural conditions. It’s a win-win!
As an added benefit, leaving bean plant residue in your garden beds to decay after harvest adds even more usable nitrogen to keep soil fertility and future yields high.
Celery & Onions: Sulfurous Security Crew
These two stalwart vegetable companions amalgamate into a pest-fighting power duo for kale, merging their spectacular scents into an invisible sulfur shield.
Onions (Allium cepa) contain naturally occurring sulfur compounds that leach into the soil as onions grow, creating an environment pests find inhospitable. These antifungal compounds also boost kale’s resilience to diseases like downy mildew and Alternaria leaf spot disease.
Next to onions, leafy green celery (Apium graveolens) matures into dense, lush bushes with thin skin permeable to organic sulfur compounds. This protects the area underneath from insects attempting to lay eggs. Celery’s quick rate of growth combined with the repellent power of sulfur makes it the perfect storm of active chemical compounds to keep flying pests away when planted among kale.
Plant onions and celery in and around kale crops for a dual layer of topical leaves and soil-bound chemicals that deter pests from snacking on the good stuff!
Friends with Benefits: Flowers Bringing Pollinators & Predators
Incorporating certain flowering companion plants into a kale patch has the added benefit of attracting beneficial pollinators and predatory insects, which can increase yields and naturally reduce pest issues without chemical controls.
Sacrificial Lamb’s Quarters Draw Attention
A common garden weed, lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium album), may be aggressively spreading, but intentionally planting some of this prolific annual pays off big time for pest protection: All those lush leaves and seeds attract vast amounts of insect attention. Often called “the magnet plant, ” lamb’s quarters pull in pest pressure, keeping populations distracted from feeding on more valuable crops. As a bonus, this prolific edible weed produces thousands of highly nutritious seeds for humans and birds! Talk about sacrificial plant offerings…
Once pests arrive, they stick around on this intriguing plant favored by many species, while beneficial predators munch on the visitors. Carefully maintained stands of this high-foliar and seed-producing plant near kale make perfect pull sites for integrated pest management. Pull lamb’s quarters before seed production to prevent unwanted spreading.
Borage Invites Bees & Beneficials
Few flowering plants enjoy borage’s notoriety and beneficial capacities (Borago officinalis), a statutory plant and honeybee favorite. With its visually stunning starburst flowers, borage acts as a critical pollinator plant for bee species while also luring in predatory beneficial wasps that keep pests under control.
By providing key food sources for bees, lacewings, ladybugs, hoverflies, and tachinid flies, borage invites wildlife biodiversity into your garden that feeds on common brassica pests like aphids, moths, and cabbage worms. Once attracted by the flowers, beneficials wander nearby, where they munch on problems, inadvertently protecting other crops. The abundant nectar also flavors honey with the captivating cucumber-like essence borage provides. For pest control and pollination, borage offers unmatched perennial power!
Companion Planting Strategies for Success
Ongoing Harvests Through Succession Planting
Succession planting ensures a continual kale supply in a limited space. By staggering new seedlings every 2-3 weeks all season, young greens mature on schedule for planned harvests based on growth rate instead of all at once. This avoids having bushels of bolting greens! Awareness of “days to maturity” on seed packets helps plan ideal intervals for sowing new batches for sustained young leaf production.
Companion crops also factor in here: growing radish, baby turnips, arugula, kohlrabi, and beets make excellent rotation partners, maturing and clearing out before kale needs their real estate. This also keeps soil nutrition fluctuations evened out between heavy-feeding brassicas.
Efficient Interplanting Methods
When laying out companion crop guilds and planning rotations, remember plant families to maintain soil health and prevent foliar diseases. Mixing plant families in rows and beds gives soil-borne pathogens fewer transmission opportunities, and nutrients are derived from varied root depths.
This crop diversification also prevents gluts of crops from maturing simultaneously, allowing more continual harvest distribution. Intentionally interplanting shade-tolerant leafy greens like lettuce, spinach, and chard amidst widely spaced kale plants optimizes production density, too. Consider vertical differences also: low-growing herbs pair well with taller kale while trailing nasturtiums fill bare spots as living mulch conserves soil moisture.
Get Creative! Epic Kale, Eggplant and Okra Ménage à Trois
An unlikely combination that’s a massive success in my garden is a distinctive kale, eggplant, and okra polyculture in the same raised bed. This threesome contrasts dramatically in form, color, and harvests. By exploiting different crop heights and being mindful of nutrient demands, I can yield abundant fruit and greens within the same footprint.
The medium-sized eggplants anchor the guild as a central feature, while poles are set in place once they reach 12-18” to support the trailing okra vines as summer heat arrives. When these two warmer-season lovers stretch out their foliage, established kale plants are maturing, filling lower strata levels. Since okra fixates nitrogen and eggplant fruit before kale peaks, nutritional resources ebb and flow in offset waves, eliminating fierce competition.
This vibrant combination suppresses weeds naturally while confusing typical brassica pests, who search for their usual leafy targets amidst the olfactory chaos only to come up short. Nature indeed throws curve balls to keep predators guessing! The beauty of this system is that as the weather cools towards autumn, the okra and eggplants fade back just as colorful kale reaches its seasonal crescendo.
Don’t shy away from unconventional mixtures when planning succession crops and companion guilds! Discovery is found in experimentation powered by understanding how plants tick. This is where the joy of gardening never ceases to unveil wonders!
Continued Care for Kale Health
Companion planting checks several boxes when promoting plant healthiness: it deters pest damage, increases pollination, adds soil nutrition, and enhances protective biodiversity through integrated plant synergies working together rhythmically like an orchestral masterpiece. Yet even in the most harmonious garden—additional control measures take things up an extra notch.
Remember to continue monitoring for disease symptoms and unusual pest damage when companion planting. Check leaf undersides for insect eggs and apply selective organic pesticides only if you find an excess since beneficial predators require time to accumulate. Remove yellowing leaves immediately and rake up fallen debris to prevent issues from spreading. And don’t put down that garden hoe just yet: hilling soil around kale roots offers stability while suppressing emerging weeds. Keeping kale trimmed back after cuttings encourages new growth flushes and avoids premature flowering.
Ample garden cleanup, precise feeding, and ongoing inspection allow your kale and consortium of companions to synergize at their grafted best!
The Circle of Life: Returning Fallen Greens as Nutritious Resources
Eventually, even the most vibrant kale reaches its life cycle peak and requires removal as a fading, flagging winter shadow. Yet I’ve found the best way to boost soil nutrition, capitalizing on last season’s faded greens, is chopping up weathered kale debris to mix back into the dirt as “green manure. ” This adds a powerhouse of minerals and nutrients to feed future crops. Alternately, piling faded brassica greens as compost boosts fertility and rebuilds precious organic matter.
Remember, the cycle never ends in nature: Decomposed plants become fuel for new generations, so DO keep at least a few kale stubs intact for reseeding themselves as hardy spring volunteers! Their tenacious life force will give you free plants while you await newly sown crops in rotation. From fading life sprouts, they have renewed beginnings!
Parting Words: Revelations from the Kale Patch
Through years of hands-on trials, I have honed my methods, and each season reveals improved techniques and ingenious combinations as my ever-evolving Wisconsin garden matures. Adapting what you learn with nature’s glorious wisdom is critical. By enabling plants to interface naturally, auras emerge. Growth resonates differently. Harmony happens.
Pay attention to these signals, and embrace the teachings. Allow your kale garden to show YOU the way. Don’t forget to give thanks as you marvel in awe, snipping each perfect leaf, knowing the abundant beauty of sharing. Gardening gifts not just healthy greens for our table but a profound connection to the earth and a renewed reverence for the mysteries of Creation.