We have quite a few fruit trees and I was wondering which companion plants are the best for them. So, I looked at what’s working in our garden and did some research. Here’s what I found.
The best companion plants for fruit trees are cover crops, comfrey, wildflowers, and Mediterranean herbs such as rosemary, lavender, and sage. These plants provide benefits such as increased nutrients, pollination, and pest control. For best results, keep these plants no more than 25-50 feet from your fruit trees.
While this list of companion plants helps, what are their specific benefits, and are there any foes to look out for? Let’s take a closer look.
In this article:
- Cover Crops (Ground Cover & Nitrogen)
- Comfrey (Mulch & Nutrients)
- Wildflowers (Pollination & Pest Control)
- Rosemary, Lavender, & Sage (Pollination & Pest Control)
- Nasturtium (Ground Cover & Pollination)
- Alliums (Pest Control)
- Berry Plants (Pollination & Barrier)
- Chamomile (Pollination & Pest Control)
- Sunflowers (Pollination & Green Manure)
- Bamboo (Windbreak & Materials)
How to Start Companion Planting
Companion planting is selecting specific plants to place together to achieve benefits, such as increasing pollination or controlling pests. Sometimes these benefits are one-sided, while others are mutual.
A famous example is The Three Sisters—planting corn, beans, and squash together. The corn provides a trellis for the beans to climb, the squash provides a ground cover, and the beans fix nitrogen in the soil. Plus, all of them provide food!
Here’s a list of the benefits that gardens gain from companion planting:
- Boost Pollination
- Repel Pests
- Prevent Weeds
- Fix Nitrogen
- Amend the Soil
- Cover the Soil
- Reduce Evaporation
- Provide a Living Trellis
- Maximize Space
- Produce More Food
Here’s how to get the most from companion planting:
- Find your USDA hardiness zone
- Find plants that do well in your zone
- Select the plants that fit each niche or layer in the graphic above (canopy, understory, herb layer, etc.)
Now, let’s take a look at the best companion plants, their benefits, and other tips to place them in your garden.
1. Cover Crops (Ground Cover & Nitrogen)
Cover crops include legumes and some grasses as they are fantastic plants to restore depleted soils before growing fruit trees.
In his book, Peter Wohlleben Professional German forester, The Hidden Life of Trees, calls these fast-growing, nitrogen-fixing plants pioneer plants. These pioneer plants pave the way for more sensitive plants, such as fruit trees. This process is often called ecological succession.
Some examples of cover crops you can use for fruit trees are:
- Other beans
- Annual Ryegrass
- Cereal Grasses
The primary benefit of cover crops is adding or “fixing” nitrogen in the soil. A secondary benefit includes improving soil health by covering the ground. This slows erosion, retains water, reduces weeds, and helps control pests and diseases.
Since fruit trees are heavy feeders of nitrogen (their primary nutrient), nitrogen fixers like cover crops are incredibly useful. Citrus and avocado trees in particular require double the nitrogen to phosphorus and potassium (such as a 6-3-3 NPK fertilizer).
For example, in the drought of 2012, corn and soybean farmers reported a 9.6-11.6% yield increase when they used cover crops, likely due in part to the cover crop’s ability to add 50-150 pounds of nitrogen per acre.Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education
Cover crops do this by attracting beneficial bacteria with their roots, which then take nitrogen from the air and store it as nitrates in the soil. These nitrates are then ready for other plants to use.
To maximize the nitrogen and nutrients for other plants, cover crops should be mowed or chopped and dropped as mulch before they seed.
When a flower transforms to seed, the sugars in the flower turn to starch. As a starch, the energy and nutrient benefit are no longer available to the soil. So, the ideal time to cut down a cover crop is after flowering and before the seeds set.Joegardener.com
Also, for best results, grow cover crops in-between your fruit trees. For example, many vineyards are using cover crops such as clover to restore and cover the soil in the off-season.
This practice also works in orchards.
Livestock can also be run through the alleys to eat the cover crops and contribute fertilizer as manure. Even something as small as a few chickens, ducks, or geese will keep the grass trimmed, pest populations down (such as snails and slugs), and fruit trees fertilized with manure.
Just keep an eye on them and make sure they’re not damaging the fruit trees.
2. Comfrey (Mulch & Nutrients)
Comfrey (Symphytum officinale)is one of the most popular companion flowers at the moment because not only is it used to attract pollinators but it grows incredibly fast and tall—eventually falling over and making a great mulch and green manure for other plants.
For example, its pink and purple flowers attract many bees and other beneficial insects while its roots pull potassium, calcium, and magnesium from the soil and into its roots and leaves.
Then, 2-4 times per growing season, comfrey can be pruned and used as mulch, providing the nutrients accumulated in the soil for other plants (the “chop and drop” method). If you choose not to prune it, it will grow tall enough to fall over and continue growing as a living mulch.
“Ecological orchardists often plant a ring of comfrey around a fruit tree and periodically practice “chop and drop” mulching, which triggers the plant to regrow, converting yet more nutrients from the earth into biomass and then topsoil.”Toby Hemenway, Gaia’s Garden
This mulch then reduces evaporation, regulates soil temperature, and prevents erosion.
Comfrey is a perennial that grows best in USDA hardiness zones 3-9, but as an annual, it can grow just about anywhere. This plant also prefers a soil pH of 6.0-7.0 (which is the same as most fruit trees).
For best results, plant comfrey next to fruit trees, just outside of their canopy. Comfrey grows well with just about every plant.
Keep in mind that while comfrey doesn’t have any foes, it can grow and spread aggressively. Because of this, many gardeners prefer to grow Russian comfrey due to its sterile seeds.
So, if you’d like more pollination, nutrients, or mulch in your garden, grow comfrey!
3. Wildflowers (Pollination & Pest Control)
Wildflowers are defined as any flower that has not been genetically manipulated.
Good choices of wildflowers for fruit trees include:
- Bee Balm
- Queen Anne’s Lace
- Purple Coneflower
- Meadow Cranesbill
- Black-Eyed Susan
The above varieties of wildflowers are especially appealing to pollinators such as bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies. These flowers provide the pollinators with nectar and pollen, which they use as sugar and protein.
Wildflowers also attract beneficial insect predators such as birds, ladybugs, and beneficial wasps, naturally keeping pest populations down.
For best results, keep wildflowers in range of your fruit trees. Ideally, this is no more than 25-50 feet away as it maximizes the chances pollinators will visit both the wildflowers as well as your fruit tree’s flowers.
Even self-pollinating fruit trees benefit from cross-pollination.
All varieties of apple trees require some cross-pollination for fruit set. Even though some varieties are listed as self-fruitful, they will set fruit more heavily and more regularly if they are cross-pollinated.Washington State University
I’ve found this to be true for other fruit trees, not just apple trees.
Any of the above wildflowers will work great as a companion plant for just about any fruit, vegetable, or herb plant. However, this isn’t an exhaustive list, so feel free to explore other wildflower varieties!
To see more companion flowers, check out my other post: The Top 10 Companion Flowers for Gardens, Vegetables, & More.
4. Rosemary, Lavender, & Sage (Pollination & Pest Control)
We have rosemary, lavender, and sage in our backyard, and our fruit trees absolutely love them. Not only have we noticed more bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds, but we’ve seen a reduction in pests such as snails and slugs.
“Choose plants that are not attractive to snails and slugs for areas where they are dense. Examples are plants with highly scented foliage, such as lavender, rosemary, and sage and some commonly grown plants including ferns, cyclamen, hydrangea, California poppy, nasturtium, and lantana.”The University of California Integrated Pest Management
Rosemary, lavender, and sage are all native to the Mediterranean, which makes them natural drought-resistant plants. As a result, they’re fairly easy to grow in most climates so you can spend the majority of your gardening efforts on your fruit trees and other projects.
For best results, plant these herbs just outside of the canopy of your fruit trees. As with wildflowers (and most other companion plants), keep these herbs no more than 25-50 feet away to maintain their benefits.
We also grow Jerusalem sage (Phlomis fruticosa) near our fruit trees and the pollinators love it. It’s a great drought-tolerant flower and you can even pick the flowers and suck on the ends for a quick shot of nectar (tastes like honey).
You can also grow these herbs on an herb spiral (see image below). This is an efficient way to grow them as the drier herbs (rosemary, thyme, etc.) are planted higher on the spiral while the wet-tolerant herbs (parsley, cilantro) are planted lower where the water naturally collects.
5. Nasturtium (Ground Cover & Pollination)
When we first saw nasturtium growing near our fruit trees, we thought they were a weed and we removed most of them. Today, we know better and welcome their many benefits.
Nasturtiums are a favorite for pollinators such as hummingbirds (they love the long, super sweet flowers), but they make a great living ground cover, reducing evaporation and protecting the soil from the elements and erosion.
Another benefit of nasturtium is it attracts pests such as aphids and cabbage worms away from other plants.
Plant nasturtiums along with fruit trees (and other fruiting plants), legumes, tomatoes, asparagus, and brassicas (cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and kale).
For bonus pest control, companion plant nasturtium with dill, calendula, and cosmos.
Avoid planting nasturtiums with squash and other vining plants such as grapes since they get tangled and compete.
This flower’s short roots also mean that it’s not difficult to remove if you decide to part ways with it. As a bonus, their roots won’t compete with the fruit tree’s shallow roots.
So, if you’d like a ground cover that attracts many pollinators (especially hummingbirds), plant nasturtium!
6. Alliums (Pest Control)
Garlic, onions, and chives are all part of the same family (Allium) and, no surprise—they’re more potent-smelling than most plants. The scent from these plants commonly repels pests such as aphids, mites, and maggots, as well as rabbits and deer from fruit trees (source).
This is likely due to their naturally occurring sulfur, which is great at repelling pests and reducing plant diseases.
For example, a common companion plant pairing is interplanting chives near apple trees to prevent apple scab (source). These plants’ scents are so effective that some deterrents are even made from garlic.
If fungal or bacterial diseases do take hold on your plant, garlic cloves can also be mixed into organic sprays along with neem oil and applied as a treatment.
Alliums have many other companion plants, but avoid planting them with legumes and other alliums.
Garlic, chives, and onion plants also have shallow roots that typically don’t exceed 12-18″, making them a good companion to grow outside of your fruit tree’s canopy.
These three plants all do well in both full sun and partial sun. But, if you’re in a warmer climate, consider planting them on the east side of your fruit tree—so the tree shades it from the hot, west sun.
For more pest-repelling companion plants, visit my other post: 7 Companion Plants That Repel Pests
7. Berry Bushes (Pollination and Barrier)
There are many types of berries, each with their strengths and weaknesses. I put together the below list to help you find which is best for your fruit trees and garden.
- Strawberry = Perennial ground cover that is best grown in USDA hardiness zones 4-9. Can be grown as an annual in warmer climates.
- Blueberry = Understory bush with several varieties that can grow in zones 3-10.
- Blackberry = Understory bramble good for deterring browsing animals such as deer, raccoons, and turkeys.
- Raspberry = Understory bramble that is good for deterring browsing animals such as deer, raccoons, and turkeys. Commonly competes with blackberries.
- Goumi Berry = (Elaeagnus multiflora) 6-foot tall, nitrogen-fixing shrub, which makes it great to plant before fruit trees. Great wildlife plant that attracts pollinators, birds, and wild turkeys. Highly drought-tolerant.
- Buffaloberry = Nitrogen-fixer, drought tolerant shrub, fruits in fall, wildlife hardy down to zone 2
- Seaberry = (Hippophae rhamnoides) AKA Sea buckthorn, a nitrogen-fixing shrub that grows to be 12-18 feet tall. Highly drought tolerant, hardy to zones 3-8 (-40ºF). Avoid planting in wet soils and shade. Nearly disease free.
- Elderberry = (Sambucus canadensis) A shrub 6-16 feet tall, tolerant of moist and clay soil as well as shade. Best grown on mounds in wet zones. Like seaberry, elderberry is nearly disease free and requires little care. Easy to harvest.
- Mulberry = Commonly used as a buffer to negate the walnut chemical juglone (more on this later).
Berry bushes such as blackberries and raspberries make great companions for fruit trees as many of them provide thorny bramble to keep away browsing herbivores like deer.
Several berry plants on this list are also nitrogen-fixers.
“[Seaberry] fixes nitrogen; it is highly drought tolerant and tolerant of poor dry soils; it is extremely hardy and able to tolerate high winds, salt, and cold to about zone 3.”Ben Falk, The Resilient Farm and Homestead
Strawberries are one of the only berry plants that is used as a living ground cover, helping to shade the soil and regulate soil temperature and reduce evaporation.
8. Chamomile (Pollination & Pest Control)
Chamomile is a great companion plant for fruit trees because it’s easy to grow, attracts beneficial insects, and grows well in partial shade.
For example, chamomile flowers attract beneficial insects such as hoverflies, ladybugs, beneficial wasps, and honey bees.
These bugs are beneficial largely because they’re predatory to common pests in the garden. For example, ladybugs are a natural predator of aphids and will help keep their populations down. Hoverflies also eat aphids. Many varieties of wasps eat caterpillars.
Plant chamomile underneath or near your fruit trees (within 25-50 feet) for best results. Chamomile also grows extremely well with mint and basil.
Keep in mind there are two main types of chamomile: German (Maricaria recutita) and Roman (Anthemis nobilis). Both are beneficial to have as companion plants.
You can also make chamomile tea with its flowers (the more common variety to use for this is Matricaria chamomilla).
Ideally, grow chamomile on the east side of your fruit tree to provide it with the cool morning sun and protect it from the hot, afternoon sun.
9. Sunflowers (Pollination & Green Manure)
While standard sunflowers are a great companion plant (often called the fourth sister to the Three Sisters of corn, beans, and squash), we’re going to be covering two lesser-known, but incredibly helpful sunflowers.
One variety is great for temperate climates (zones 3-8), while the other is perfect for topical climates (zones 9-11).
Maximilian Sunflower (Helianthus maximilianii)
Maximilian Sunflower is a perennial sunflower that grows 5-7 feet tall and is deer-resistant, making them a great wildlife barrier to your yard. They’re best for colder climates and are a relative to Jerusalem artichokes, having edible shoots.
This sunflower is hardy to zone 4 (-30ºF).
According to Toby Hemenway, he uses Maximilian sunflowers in his southern Oregon yard as an edible, low-maintenance deer barrier, mulch generator, and weed preventer.
Mexican Sunflower (Tithonia diversifolia)
Mexican sunflowers attract pollinators like crazy and grow best in USDA hardiness zones 9 and above, so they’re great to plant with your tropical fruit trees. This flowering plant grows to a height of 4-6 feet.
I first heard of Mexican sunflowers from Pete Kanaris at Green Dreams Farm. He claimed that, when mulched, it has the same amount of nitrogen pound for pound as chicken manure.
Because of this, they’re often called green manure. And based on his backyard food forest’s growth, I’d say that it’s clearly working!
To see Mexican sunflowers in action, check out this video by Pete.
10. Bamboo (Windbreak & Materials)
Bamboo (a type of grass) is one of the best companion plants for fruit trees because it helps establish a microclimate for the surrounding area and serves as a quick-growing windbreak.
Growing bamboo also promotes better biodiversity, providing shelter and food for many beneficial critters in your local ecosystem.
While you might think bamboo works best in tropical climates, many people also use it in temperate climates.
Bamboo also grows at an incredibly fast speed, with some varieties growing one inch every 40 minutes. There are many uses for bamboo, especially in building applications—which is highly useful for gardening and homesteading. One of the most common is to build trellises.
This plant commonly reaches 15-39 feet tall and can be aggressive depending on the variety and level of management, so plant with caution.
Care must be taken, however, in situations where bamboo will spread and displace important native vegetation, particularly along watercourses. It is best to use a clumping bamboo rather than a running type.Bill Mollison, Introduction to Permaculture
So, for best results, choose a clumping bamboo variety and keep it at least 15-25 feet from fruit trees to allow proper sunlight, ventilation, and root space.
For example, according to Oregon State University Permaculture Teacher Andrew Millison, he simply limits his bamboo by kicking over the new shoots before they have a chance to grow. He said that with a little management, bamboo is nothing to fear.
To see how Andrew Millison uses bamboo in his 1/3 acre Food Forest, see his awesome video below (bamboo starts at 18:55).
Bonus Companion Plants for Fruit Trees
Whether you’re wanting to boost your fruit tree’s pollination, nitrogen, or pest control, here are 30 more companion plants you can choose from.
|Attracts Pollinators||Nitrogen-Fixers||Pest Control|
|Goldenrod||Beans and Peas||Ginger/Turmeric|
What to Avoid Planting Near Fruit Trees
Most Root Vegetables and Tubers
Deep-rooted plants such as potatoes, carrots, and other tubers or root vegetables can interfere with and even damage some of the fruit tree’s shallow roots, especially if they’re planted near or under the fruit tree’s canopy.
An exception to this is daikon radish as it’s known to amend and aerate soil for fruit trees by breaking up compact ground.
However, the majority of root crops aren’t great for fruit trees as these trees have 90% of their roots in the first 2 feet of soil.
Select Nut Trees
Some nut trees such as walnuts produce a growth-inhibiting chemical called juglone.
Plants that are susceptible to juglone include apples, pears, blueberries, as well as nightshade (tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants).
However, some plants have shown resistance to it, or can even neutralize it, including cherries, peaches, mulberries, legumes, carrots, onions, melons, and squash.
For best results, plant these neutral plants in between the juglone-producing and juglone-sensitive plants. For example, in this order: apple, mulberry, walnut (see below).
Walnuts are allelopaths, whose mildly toxic root secretions will stunt the growth of many other plants. This is where the use of buffer plants described earlier, is essential.Toby Hemenway
Toby goes on to say that most nitrogen-fixing plants tolerate walnut toxins, such as black locust, acacia, red or black alder, as well as Russian olive and wax myrtle.
|Layer||Tropical (Zones 9-11)||Temperate (Zones 3-8)|
|Canopy||Palm Tree, Bamboo, Southern Oak||Oak, Black Locust, Poplar|
|Understory||Banana, Avocado, Citrus||Elderberry, Apple, Cherry, Peach, Berries|
|Herb||Pigeon Pea, Mexican Sunflower, Comfrey||Asparagus, Comfrey, Sage|
|Ground Cover||Sweet Potato, Cover Crops, Nasturtium, Vetch||Strawberry, Squash, Cover Crops|
|Root||Sweet Potato, Yuca, Ginger, Turmeric||Daikon Radish, Alliums, Yacon|
|Vertical/Vining||Kiwi, Jasmine, Cucumbers||Grapes, Beans, Hardy Kiwi|
|Fungal||Oyster, Turkey Tail||Shiitake, Oyster, Lion’s Mane|
When companion planting your fruit trees, consider growing perennials over annuals. While annuals have many benefits, you’ll get more bang for your buck if you lean on plants that can survive more than one year and become independent of your care.
Aim to grow fast-growing support species first. These include black locust, acacia, and mesquite. These plants help establish the soil and provide a microclimate for the more sensitive productive species such as fruit trees.
Fruit trees love mulch. Seriously, they can’t get enough. Mulch mimics fallen leaves in forests and dramatically retains water, prevents weeds, and deters pests. Provide your fruit trees with a mound of mulch around 4-12 inches high.
If you’re working with heavy clay soils (as many of us are), avoid planting the fruit tree in a hole as the compact clay essentially creates a bucket in the ground. This stores water and drowns the plant’s roots.
Instead, plant the fruit tree in a mound of soil and build the soil up. For example, a good way to build mounds and fill raised beds is with Hugelkultur.
For our fruit trees, we’ve planted lavender, jasmine, and other flowering plants nearby. We also have an onion and garlic patch not too far away, so there’s a good chance they’re repelling pests (we’ve noticed a decrease in caterpillars and white moths).
- Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway
- Introduction to Permaculture by Bill Mollison
- Resilient Farm and Homestead by Ben Falk
- Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual by Bill Mollison
Need More Help?
You can always ask us here at Couch to Homestead, but you should know the other resources available to you! Here are the resources we recommend.
- Local Cooperative Extension Services: While we do our best with these articles, sometimes knowledge from a local expert is needed! The USDA partnered with Universities to create these free agriculture extension services. Check out this list to see your local services.
- Permaculture Consultation: Need help with a bigger project? Send us a message.
For more information about planting and caring for fruit trees, see this recent video I made: