Intercropping is growing two or more crops at the same time in the same field. It is a practice often associated with sustainable and organic farming. It is commonly used in tropical parts of the world, particularly by small scale farmers in Africa, but it is far less widespread in the mechanised agriculture of Europe and North America.
In intercropping, there is often one main crop and one or more added crops, with the main crop being the one of primary importance because of economic or food production reasons. The two or more crops used in an intercrop may be from different species and/or different plant families.
The most common goal of intercropping is to produce a greater yield on a given piece of land by making use of resources that would otherwise not be utilised by a single crop. Careful planning is required, taking into account the soil, climate, crops, and varieties. It is particularly important not to have crops competing with each other for physical space, nutrients, water, or sunlight. Examples of intercropping strategies are planting a deep-rooted crop with a shallow-rooted crop, or planting a tall crop with a shorter crop that requires partial shade.
When crops are carefully selected, other agronomic benefits are also achieved. Lodging-prone plants (those that are prone to tip over in wind or heavy rain) may be given structural support by their companion crop. Delicate or light sensitive plants may be given shade or protection, or otherwise wasted space can be utilised. An example is the tropical multi-tier system where coconut occupies the upper tier, banana the middle tier, and pineapple, ginger, leguminous fodder, medicinal or aromatic plants occupy the lowest tier.
Intercropping of compatible plants also encourages biodiversity, by providing a habitat for a variety of beneficial insects and soil organisms that would not be present in a single crop environment. This biodiversity can in turn help to limit outbreaks of crop pests by increasing the diversity or abundance of natural enemies, such as spiders or parasitic wasps. Increasing the complexity of the crop environment through intercropping also limits the places where pests can find optimal foraging or reproductive conditions.
There are some different variants of intercropping: