I have a few fruit trees, such as lemon, lime, oranges, tangerines, kumquat, and fig, and I’m looking at ways to maximize our garden space and its efficiency. Naturally, this led me to companion plants. While I’m a bit familiar with the general purpose and some examples of companion plants, I wanted to exactly which ones would be the best for fruit trees. So, I did some research. Here’s what I found.
The best companion plants for fruit trees are flowering plants such as comfrey, lavender, marigolds, violets, and bee balm, along with nitrogen fixers such as legumes. Some plants such as garlic and onion can also repel pests. Avoid any plants that have deeper or more invasive roots as they’ll compete with the fruit tree.
So, while there are many types of plants you use can use as companions for fruit trees, what are the main functions they should serve, and which ones are the best? Let’s take a further look.
What Do Companion Plants Do for Fruit Trees?
Typically, companion plants serve several main purposes. They are:
- Attracting pollinators
- Providing ground cover
- Amending soil
- Repelling pests
- Preventing weeds from growing
- Providing food
One of the biggest reasons to use companion plants is that they attract pollinators. Naturally, having more pollinators around will increase the pollination for your fruit trees as well. This is even true for self-pollinating fruit trees.
Most self-pollinating fruit trees actually benefit from outside pollination, also called cross-pollination. Fruit trees such as avocado trees can get increased fruit size as well as better yields.
If you have multiple varieties of fruit trees, and you’re wondering if they can cross-pollinate with each other, make sure to check out my recent post: Can an Apple Tree Pollinate a Pear, Cherry, or Plum Tree?
Companion plants can also provide ground cover for the fruit trees, which helps retain water, aerate the soil, and prevent weed growth.
Another benefit of companion plants is that they can repel some pests. A popular example of this is using marigolds to repel nematodes in the soil.
However, one of the largest benefits is that some plants will even amend the soil and provide nitrogen. This is a huge win for fruit trees as most are pretty heavy nitrogen feeders. After all, the main three nutrients in fertilizer are nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (NPK for short), so using plants to provide one of the three can be a good investment.
If you’re thinking, “Well, that’s all great for the pollinators and the soil health, but what about me? Do I get any extra food from companion planting?“. Of course, the answer is yes! There are many plants you can use as companion plants for fruit trees that will also provide food.
Before we jump into the top 10 companion plants for fruit trees, you should know how to best plant these plants to not interfere with the fruit tree. After all, that would defeat the purpose and these plants would no longer be called “companions”.
Can You Plant Flowers Under Fruit Trees?
Some flowers such as marigolds, lavender, and violets can be planted under fruit trees. Generally, keep the flower at least 2 feet away from the tree. Additionally, to avoid damage or competition with the fruit tree, it’s best to plant flowers that require partial shade and have shallow roots.
Know This Before Companion Planting
Before planting companions for your fruit tree, make sure the tree is mature and well-established. Also, since fruit trees typically have shallow roots, keep the companion plants about 2 feet away from the tree’s trunk as they can crowd and compete with it. Instead, plant companions around the perimeter of the fruit tree for best results.
Now, let’s get into the top 10 companion plants for fruit trees!
The Top 10 Companion Plants for Fruit Trees
Comfrey is one of the best companions for fruit trees as they can not only help boost the nitrogen, but also the phosphorus, potassium, and calcium in the soil. This benefits the fruit tree’s high demands of nitrogen, as well as its neighboring plants. To get this done, comfrey has a long taproot that’s able to access deeper soil.
Additionally, when comfrey is growing too large, you can prune it back and use its leaves as a mulch for the fruit trees. This provides even more benefits such as increased water retention and nutrients in the soil, while also preventing weeds.
Comfrey is also good at repelling some pests such as slugs, but keep in mind that comfrey can be difficult to get rid of once planted, so plan well!
Legumes such as clover and runner beans are also great nitrogen fixers for fruit trees and provide a good source of vegetation (as well as food). They’re great at taking the nitrogen from the air and storing it into the soil. Like comfrey, you can mulch legumes for even more nitrogen and other nutrients.
With legumes such as clover, you can even run livestock through your orchards to keep the growth down (while providing great fertilizer for your fruit trees in the form of manure). Just make sure the livestock aren’t consuming too many legumes as it can create imbalances in their diet.
Clover is also a great cover crop, which is a good first step in restoring depleted land. Cover crops are valuable in that they add nutrients and water back into the soil as well as attract beneficial insects and soil life.
3. Shallow-Rooted Herbs
If you’re looking for some companion plants to grow that’ll provide some extra food, you’re in luck! Shallow-rooted herbs such as rosemary, cilantro/coriander, and lemongrass are all great for fruit trees and provide some uses for the kitchen.
Herbs like rosemary, cilantro, and lemongrass not only have non-invasive roots but can also attract pollinators and beneficial insects. Using companion plants with shallow roots is incredibly important with companion planting as most fruit trees also have shallow roots.
The key with companion planting is to pair plants that won’t compete with each other. For best results, plant shallow-rooted plants (such as these herbs), at the perimeter of the fruit trees.
Planting wildflowers are a good way to attract pollinators as their variety of colors is appealing and provides a good mix of nectar for them.
Wildflowers are defined as any flower that has not been genetically manipulated.
- Bee Balm (more on this later)
- Queen Anne’s Lace
- Purple Coneflower
- Meadow Cranesbill
- Black-Eyed Susan
As mentioned earlier, both cross-pollinating and self-pollinating trees can not only benefit by keeping multiple trees, but they can also benefit from pollinators. Self-pollinating fruit trees commonly get larger and more abundant fruit from outside pollination.
If you’d like to learn more about the difference between cross and self-pollination with fruit trees, I wrote a post showing the differences. Feel free to check it out by clicking the link above.
Lavender is a great choice for fruit trees as it’s drought-tolerant, easy to grow, and does well in shade. But the biggest benefit? It attracts pollinators.
Since lavender can do well with both full and partial sun, it can be planted under the outside perimeter of fruit trees, or just nearby. Generally, keep companion plants no more than 20 feet away for maximum benefits.
Lavender can also be used as an herb or aromatic, so it’s a good plant to have around on your homestead.
6. Garlic and Onion
Compared to most of the other companion plants on this list, garlic and onion are great at deterring pests from fruit trees. The pungent smell can ward off bugs such as aphids, mites, maggots, as well as rabbits and deer.
It’s so effective that even some deterrents are made from garlic.
Additionally, garlic and onion roots are relatively shallow, growing to a depth of 12-18″. This makes them a good companion plant since they won’t interfere or compete with the fruit tree’s roots.
Like lavender, garlic and onions do well in both full sun and partial sun. However, if you’re in a hotter climate, consider planting garlic and onions on the perimeter of the fruit tree so they can get a couple hours of relief from the hot sun.
Similar to garlic and onions, the scent of ginger can also repel some pests. Additionally, ginger makes for a good food plant to grow since it has anti-inflammatory properties when eaten.
Ginger plants need about 2-4 inches of depth in the soil and can grow to 2-3 feet tall. The shallow roots and short height make it a great plant to keep around your fruit trees.
If you live in hotter climates, you should know that ginger can do well, but can dry out quickly. For this reason, provide it with some afternoon shade from the hot sun and keep the soil moist (but not wet!).
Once the ginger sprouts are growing out of the ground, you can mulch them, which will help both the ginger and fruit trees retain water and protect the soil from the sun.
Marigolds not only attract pollinators for your fruit trees, but they can significantly reduce populations of nematodes.
Nematodes commonly transmit disease to fruit trees such as apple and peach trees. Fortunately, marigolds are a great and easy deterrent for nematodes.
Marigolds are best planted at the perimeter or outside of your fruit trees in full sun (at least 6 hours). While they can handle full sun, they can dry out, so consider mulching the soil around them and keeping the ground moist.
Violets are a good and beautiful addition to any garden and attract a host of pollinators such as bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.
These flowers do best in partial sun but can handle full sun as long as temperatures don’t frequently exceed 85ºF or more.
For best results, plant violets along with other shade-liking flowering plants along the perimeter of your fruit trees.
10. Bee Balm (Bergamot)
While Bee Balm is a type of wildflower, I figured it deserved a separate mention here since its benefits as a companion plant are so widely discussed.
Mostly, Bee Balm is used as a pollinator, but it also has its uses around the homestead such as in lotions and potpourris. Additionally, Bee Balm can even repel mosquitoes.
Unlike many other flowers, Bee Balm does best in full sun, so consider planting them outside of the canopy of your fruit trees.
Which Plants Are Not Good To Plant Near Fruit Trees?
Generally, fruit trees have most of their roots in the first 2′ of soil. Because of this, avoid using companion plants that have invasive or deep roots. Plants such as potatoes, carrots, and other tubers or root vegetables can interfere and even damage some of the fruit tree’s roots.
For this reason, planting any moderate-to-deep rooting plants can quickly compete with the fruit tree and cause more harm than good (defeating the purpose of a “companion” plant). Make sure to check the plant’s common root depth before planting it near your fruit trees. Additionally, you might want to check that the roots aren’t invasive and won’t take over much of your garden.
For more information about what to consider before buying fruit trees, make sure to check out my recent post: 7 Things to Know Before Buying a Fruit Tree.
Can You Plant Companion Plants With Potted Fruit Trees?
Usually, it’s not a good idea to plant companion plants in the same pot as fruit trees. Fruit trees can have shallow roots, so there’s limited soil and the tree and companion plants can end up competing. A good workaround is to keep companion plants in separate pots, but near the fruit tree.
Fruit trees can be expensive, especially if you get mature trees, so it’s a good idea to optimize their space and make sure other plants work alongside them (and not against them). 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 chance they’re repelling pests.
Companion plants can work well when implemented correctly. When in doubt, mulch the tree and plant flowers around the perimeter of the tree. Mulching increases water retention and protects the soil from the elements. It also suppresses weeds which lessens the competition with the fruit tree’s shallow roots.
If you’re looking for a good, homemade fertilizer to use for your companion plants and fruit trees, consider using coffee grounds!