Nurse cropping is a form of companion planting in that specific plants are installed to provide one type of protection or another for young crops as they become established.
Nurse crops protect young perennials
In commercial agriculture, nurse crops are fast-growing annuals that are planted along with perennials, such as alfalfa, to help those perennials become established. This gives the long term crop protection from pests as it is getting started.
Nurse crops as trap crops
Trap crops are installed around or near desirable crops because of the way they attract or repel specific pests. In some cases, trap crops interfere with a pest’s lifecycle or kill it outright. In other cases, the trap crop is “harvested” after pests have appeared to remove them from the garden.
Nurse crops are frequently used as traps crops. For example, wireworms are a big problem for strawberries. In one study, strawberries planted alone had a 43% mortality rate, while strawberries planted two weeks before wheat was added had a 27% mortality rate. When wheat was planted 8 days before the strawberries, that mortality rate dropped to 5%. That’s a significant savings in strawberry starts, just by broadcasting a handful of wheat berries a week ahead of time!
Pros and cons of nurse cropping
Like every other plan of action, nurse cropping has pros and cons. The benefits of nurse cropping include reduced weeds, wind and erosion. Also, perennial seedlings are protected from excessive sun in their first weeks of growth. Oats and other cereals are common nurse crops. As such, another benefit is that the nurse crop can be a harvestable edible in its own right.
The potential problems associated with nurse cropping is that the nurse crop does use up water and nutrients. It may also become a type of weed itself.
You can use nurse cropping in your garden by starting cereal grains in a bed a week or so before planting something else. If you don’t harvest it, the local birds and other wildlife will appreciate the buffet and more tender plants will benefit, as well.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!