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What is Intercropping?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Intercropping is an agricultural practice in which two or more crops are grown together in the same field. This practice is ancient, as numerous records from human societies all over the world indicate. Intercropping persisted in agrarian societies after being rejected by the Western world with the advent of highly mechanized farming. In the late 20th century, Western farmers began to recognize the value of intercropping, and the practice experienced a resurgence in some areas, especially regions where farmers practiced sustainable farming.

There are a number of ways for people to use intercropping. In one form, crops are planted in alternating rows or strips, with the crops being kept separate, but still interacting as a result of proximity. In another, an intercrop or intercrops are planted between the rows after a main crop has started to mature. Intercrops which grow quickly can also be grown in several cycles while a primary crop matures. Intercropping can also be done with crops which are totally intermixed, rather than being separated.

One of the most famous examples of this practice comes from the Americas, where native peoples grew corn, beans, and squash together. This example of intercropping also illustrates many of the advantages of this practice. One advantage is that it increases yields; more can be grown on a single plot with intercropping. It also takes advantage of interdependent relationships between plants, with the intercrops providing cover, shade, nutrients, a trellis to grow on, and other benefits. Some crops may even have insecticidal effects which keep pests from more vulnerable crops.

A wide variety of crops can be mixed with intercropping. Similar cultivars may be grown together, or radically different plants may be grown together, as seen in some wine producing areas where mustard is grown between the vines. This growing technique can be used to condition the soil, by growing nitrogen fixers such as beans, to keep weeds down, as seen when fast-growing crops like radishes are planted among slow-growing grains, and to confer numerous other benefits.

Intercropping is encouraged in the sustainable farming community, with Western farmers adopting a technique which farmers in regions like Asia and Africa have never stopped using. Home gardeners can also utilize this practice to increase yields and promote healthy crops. The benefits of companion planting are not restricted to edible crops, either. Intercropping can be done with flowers, as well, with many flower species such as marigolds having insect repelling properties which can make them useful for natural pest control.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a HomeQuestionsAnswered researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By shell4life — On Nov 16, 2011

I like to grow strawberries with blackberry bushes. I alternate the rows so that the big bushes provide some shelter and shade for the strawberry vines. In the scorching summer sun, this keeps the plants from wilting and the fruit from spoiling.

I love making fruit smoothies with just berries and milk. They are so good for you. I also love not having to buy containers of berries from the grocery store. A small carton of blackberries costs way too much, in my opinion.

The best strawberries are the ones you grow in your own garden. Store-bought ones have a waxy texture and they are short on flavor.

With my combination blackberry/strawberry garden, I can harvest my two favorite fruits all throughout the season. Once established, both types of plants come back every year, so all I had to pay for was the original plants.

By orangey03 — On Nov 15, 2011

My family has used intercropping for as long as I can remember. They do this because we have a limited amount of space in our yard for growing fruits and vegetables.

My dad has always planted corn and tomatoes. Those form the basic framework of the garden. Over the years, he has grown okra, bell peppers, cantaloupe, watermelons, and strawberries in with the corn and tomatoes.

Often, what he chooses to grow during a certain season depends on what comes back naturally from seed. If the seed doesn’t bear fruit or if the plants look sickly, he will dig them up and plant something else.

By OeKc05 — On Nov 15, 2011

@lighth0se33 - I used marigolds in my pumpkin garden, and they did wonders at keeping the insects off. Pumpkins and squash attract the same kinds of insects.

In addition to the marigolds, I also planted nasturtiums. These little edible flowers also have a reputation for keeping certain pests at bay.

You can also add the flowers of nasturtiums to a salad. They have a peppery taste that gives a little kick to a dish.

I grow miniature pumpkins for decoration each year, so these two kinds of flowers are invaluable to my crop. Like you said, they do add beauty to an otherwise ordinary garden.

By lighth0se33 — On Nov 14, 2011

I know for a fact that marigolds can help repel the squash beetle. I planted several squash and zucchini with marigolds this year, and while they have been overrun with the beetles in the past, I only saw a couple on the outer edges of the rows this time.

I planted one row of entirely squash, a row of marigolds next to that, and then a row of zucchini, and another row of marigolds. I had a really nice crop, because the beetles didn’t munch on the vines and fruit. Plus, the marigolds made the garden look pretty.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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