I have a few fruit trees including 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. So, over the past several months, I did some research to find the BEST companion plants for fruit trees. 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 like legumes and clover. Some plants can also repel pests, like garlic. Avoid any plants that have invasive roots as they’ll compete with the fruit tree.
To give you a quick reference of some great companions for fruit trees, I took the data I’ve gathered and put together the table below.
|Apples/Pears||Comfrey, Chives, Nasturtium||Cedar (Juniper), Walnut|
|Stone Fruit (Peaches, Cherries, Plums)||Chives, Marigolds, Dandelions||Peppers|
|Citrus||Lavender, Rosemary, Nasturtium||–|
|Avocados||Lavender, Comfrey, Sweet Potatoes||–|
|Figs||Nasturtium, Comfrey, Thyme||Nightshade|
|Nuts||Stone Fruits, Berries, Comfrey||–|
|Persimmon||Comfrey, Borage, Marigolds||–|
|Bananas||Palm Trees, Bamboo, Ginger||–|
|Mangos||Citrus, Comfrey, Mex. Sunflowers||–|
|Coconut/Date||Bananas, Ginger, Passion Fruit||–|
|Elderberries||Currants, Blackberries, Comfrey||–|
|Mulberries||Alliums, Marigolds, Nasturtium||–|
|Olive||Rosemary, Lavender, Nasturtium||–|
|Pomegranate||Sage, Rosemary, Chamomile||–|
|Kiwi||Currants, Lavender, Catnip||Nightshade|
|Grapes||Blackberries, Clover, Chives||–|
|Strawberries||Borage, Sage, Asparagus||–|
|Blueberries||Strawberries, Clover, Wildflowers||Tomatoes|
|Raspberries||Alliums, Tansy, Yarrow||Nightshade, Blackberries|
|Blackberries||Grapes, Chives, Blueberries||Raspberries|
The goal of companion planting is to use the fruit tree as the central element and support it with plants that provide many functions and benefits. These plants are often found naturally growing together in nature.
Bill Mollison in his book, Introduction to Permaculture, describes permaculture and companion planting as ways to reduce the cost, labor, and input that you’re providing your garden while receiving the maximum amount of output.
So, while there are many plants you use can use as companions for fruit trees, what are the main functions they should serve your fruit trees, and which companions are the best? Let’s take a closer look.
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Benefits of Companion Planting
Companion planting is selecting specific plants to place together to achieve benefits, such as increasing pollination or repelling 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
- Protect the Soil
- Reduce Evaporation
- Provide a Living Trellis
- Maximize Space
- Produce More Food
If you’d like to learn more about the benefits of companion planting, check out my other post: The Top 10 Benefits of Companion Planting.
Comfrey is one of the most popular companion flowers at the moment because not only can it be used to attract pollinators but it grows incredibly fast and tall—eventually falling over and making a great mulch for other plants.
This mulch then reduces evaporation, provides protection from the elements, and adds nutrients to the soil.
Comfrey also fixes nitrogen in the soil, meaning its roots attract beneficial bacteria which take nitrogen from the air and store it as nitrates in the soil, ready for plants to use (source). As fruit trees are heavy feeders of nitrogen (their primary nutrient), nitrogen fixers like comfrey are incredibly useful.
As a result of its nitrogen-fixing properties, comfrey is a great choice to use for growing in and improving poor soils.
In his book, Peter Wohlleben Professional German forester, The Hidden Life of Trees, calls these 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.
Comfrey grows best in USDA hardiness zones 3-9, but it will grow pretty much anywhere. It 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, as well as vegetables like asparagus. However, 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 need more pollination, mulch, or nitrogen in your garden, grow comfrey!
2. Cover Crops
Many legumes (along with some grasses such as annual ryegrass) are also called cover crops as they are fantastic pioneer plants to restore depleted soils ahead of fruit trees.
Some examples of cover crops in the legume family are:
- Other beans
On the other hand, some grassy cover crops include annual ryegrass and cereal grasses.
Other benefits of cover crops include improving soil health by slowing erosion, retaining water, preventing weeds, and controlling pests and diseases.
They’ve even been shown to increase crop yields.
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.Source
So, like comfrey, cover crops fix nitrogen in the soil.
After growing cover crops, you can chop-and-drop them by cutting and using them as mulch for even more nitrogen and other nutrients (further reducing groundwater evaporation). The amount of biomass and nutrients cover crops can generate is super impressive and valuable—contributing to better health and fruiting for your trees.
With cover crops such as clover, you can even grow them in-between your fruit trees and run livestock through the alleys. And you don’t need much livestock either. 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 fertilize the fruit trees (with manure). Your fruit trees, livestock, and soil all benefit. It’s a win-win-win!
If you’d like to learn more about cover crops, check out this resource by Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE).
So, what exactly are wildflowers?
Wildflowers are defined as any flower that has not been genetically manipulated (source).
- Bee Balm
- Queen Anne’s Lace
- Purple Coneflower
- Meadow Cranesbill
- Black-Eyed Susan
Wildflowers are an amazing addition to your garden, especially if they’re within range of your fruit trees. Ideally, this is around 25 feet or closer, but no more than 50 feet away as it maximizes the chances pollinators will visit both the wildflowers as well as your fruit tree’s flowers.
And 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
These varieties of wildflowers are especially appealing to pollinators and provide a good mix of nectar and pollen they can use as sugar and protein.
Wildflowers also attract beneficial insect predators such as birds, ladybugs, and beneficial wasps, which naturally keep pest populations down.
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 and Lavender
My parent’s rosemary and lavender plants always attract pollinators in the dozens. But its oily, aromatic flowers also naturally repel pests such as snails, slugs, and other pests (source).
Rosemary and lavender are also 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.
These two plants also grow well when planted alongside sage, which offers similar benefits.
Because of lavender’s appealing fragrance, it’s a common ingredient in homemade soaps, lotions, and more. It’s also used as a garnish in some recipes (I sometimes add a sprig of lavender in my lemonade).
Rosemary also has many uses around the home, including cooking, baking, soap-making, and essential oils.
Some essential oils are even being used in treating fruit trees of certain pests and diseases.
Essential oils (e.g. from thyme, mint, cinnamon, oregano) have known antimicrobial activity. In one laboratory study active compounds from Origanum compactum (oregano family) and Thymus vulgaris (Thyme) were most effective (Kokoskova et al., 2011). In another study, Apium graveolens (celery seed) and Curcuma longa (turmeric) essential oils showed a reduction in Erwinia amylovora virulence (Akhlaghi et al.). These oils are rich in antioxidative phenolic compounds which are believed to be responsible for their antimicrobial activity (Chizzola et al., 2008).Washington State University
These reasons make rosemary and lavender great multipurpose plants and companions for your fruit trees!
Most people I know have never heard of nasturtium, but when I show them a picture they quickly recognize it.
Nasturtium is often believed to be a weed, likely because it grows quickly and horizontally along the ground. However, because of this, nasturtium makes a great ground cover, reducing evaporation and protecting the soil from the elements and erosion.
Its edible flowers also have nectar that’s sweeter than most. This is because it’s made from highly concentrated sucrose instead of glucose or fructose. As a result, nasturtium is highly desirable for pollinators.
Another reason why it’s great at attracting pollinators is that its long flowers evolved alongside the hummingbird’s long tongue (source).
Aside from providing ground cover and pollination, nasturtium has another benefit in companion planting—it attracts pests such as aphids and cabbage worms away from other plants (source). Nasturtium is pretty durable when it comes to pests, so you shouldn’t have to worry about it being damaged.
However, if your nasturtium starts to get overrun with pests, plant dill, calendula, and cosmos nearby.
Nasturtium’s shallow 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.
Plant nasturtiums along with fruit trees (and other fruiting plants), legumes, tomatoes, asparagus, and brassicas (cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and kale). Avoid planting nasturtiums with squash and other vining plants since they can easily get tangled and compete.
So, if you’d like a ground cover that attracts many pollinators (especially hummingbirds), plant nasturtium!
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6. Alliums (Garlic, Onions, and Chives)
Garlic, onions, and chives are all part of the same family (allium) and, no surprise—they’re more potent-smelling than most plants. More specifically, this is likely due to their naturally occurring sulfur, which is great at repelling pests as well as its use as a natural anti-bacterial and fungicide.
In fact, these plants’ scents are so effective that some deterrents are even made from garlic (source).
For pests, plant garlic, chives, and onions near your fruit trees to help repel aphids, mites, maggots, as well as rabbits and deer (source). This is because their pungent sulfur smell and taste are not appealing to these pests’ strong senses.
For diseases, it’s believed that the sulfur from these plants also helps prevent certain ones to some extent. For example, a common companion plant pairing is to interplant chives near apple trees to prevent apple scab (source).
However, if fungal or bacterial diseases do take hold, garlic cloves can also be mixed into organic sprays along with neem oil and applied as a treatment.
Garlic, chives, and onion plants also have shallow roots that typically don’t exceed 12-18″, making them a good companion to plant outside of the fruit tree’s canopy.
These three plants all do well in both full sun and partial sun. However, 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, afternoon west sun.
Alliums have many companion plants, but avoid planting them with legumes and other alliums.
For more companion plants that repel pests and diseases, visit my other post: 10+ Companion Plants That Prevent Pests and Diseases.
7. Berry Bushes
Berry bushes make great companions for fruit trees as many of them provide bramble to keep away browsing herbivores like deer. Most berries also provide a good understory as part of a food forest (more on this in the next section).
Each type of berry has different characteristics, so keep these in mind when planting.
- Strawberries make a great ground cover
- Blueberries make a great understory
- Blackberries make a good understory and bramble
- Raspberries make a good understory and bramble
Strawberries are the only berry on this list that works as a ground cover (as opposed to a bush or bramble). Ground covers are fantastic at reducing evaporation and helping the beneficial soil life thrive. You can think of ground covers as a living mulch.
Remember that blackberries and raspberries are similar in needs and size, so they tend to compete for the same nutrients and water. For this reason, avoid planting blackberries and raspberries together.
Chamomile is a great companion plant for fruit trees because it’s easy to grow, fixes nitrogen in the soil, attracts beneficial insects, and grows well in partial shade.
There are two main types of chamomile: German (Maricaria recutita) and Roman (Anthemis nobilis). Both are beneficial to have as companion plants.
First, chamomile helps fix the nitrogen in the soil by promoting beneficial bacteria to store nitrates in the soil (similar to comfrey and cover crops). Their flowers also attract beneficial insects such as hoverflies, ladybugs, beneficial wasps, and honey bees.
If you’re not already aware, some of these bugs are predatory to common pests. For example, ladybugs are a natural predator of aphids and will help keep their populations down.
Additionally, you can plant chamomile underneath or near your fruit trees. For best results, plant on the east side of the fruit tree to provide the chamomile with the cool morning sun and partial shade during the hot afternoon sun.
Along with fruit trees, chamomile grows well with mint and basil. You can also make chamomile tea with its flowers (the more common variety to use for this is Matricaria chamomilla).
Hyssop is an evergreen flowering shrub that is often used in herbal remedies. This shrub is fairly hardy in most climates, growing in USDA hardiness zones 3-11 (source), which is a nice overlap with the climate for fruit trees.
Many gardeners mention that hyssop is a great companion plant for fruit trees as it improves yields in orchards.
Closely related to hyssop, mint is another companion plant for fruit trees. Although, make sure to allow enough room for mint as it’s fairly invasive and will spread quickly. Again, consider keeping mint’s roots isolated by keeping them in a pot.
Along with fruit trees, interplant hyssop with and alliums.
Geraniums have numerous benefits in the garden including attracting pollinators and repelling pests (while trapping others). For example, geraniums have been known to repel white cabbage butterflies and trap beetles—keeping them away from other plants such as veggies.
Geraniums are a family of flowering plants that contains over 280 different species. Most geranium varieties are temperate and die down in the winter. However, the species Pelargonium are evergreens native to warmer and tropical climates. These warmer species are fairly heat and drought tolerant.
Most geranium flowers are red, orange, or white. However, there are some variations (such as the pink geranium in the photo above).
Interplant geraniums with crops that are more sensitive to pests like roses, corn, cabbage, and of course—fruit trees. However, avoid planting fruit trees and cabbages together as they can compete for nutrients.
Many geraniums also have many home uses including potpourri, soaps, and baking (source).
Geraniums are also easily propagated—simply take a branch or cutting and place it in water. Over a short period, it will begin growing roots and can be replanted.
Example Companion Groups for Fruit Trees
While learning about some companion plants for fruit trees might be helpful, how exactly does this translate to our garden? In other words, what’s an example pairing that you can actually use with your fruit trees?
The first step is to determine your USDA hardiness zone. These zones measure the average minimum winter temperature.
For example, here in Austin, Texas, I’m in zone 8b, which means my average winter temperature is about 15ºF to 20ºF. Since citrus trees prefer zones 9-11, it gets just a little too cold here to grow citrus trees.
To find your hardiness zone, you can perform a quick Google search of your city and hardiness zone. Once you have your zone, refer to either the tropical or temperate section below.
Here are some of the best examples of the best companion groups and guilds that I’ve found:
Tropical Fruit Trees (Zones 9-11)
Tropical fruit trees are those found natively in the tropics and subtropics and are generally evergreen (keeping their leaves year-round).
- Palm Tree (coconut and date)
For best results, consider planting companion plants in multiple vertical layers (refer to the above graphic for guidance on this).
|Ground Cover||Sweet Potato|
Temperate Fruit Trees (Zones 3-8)
Temperate fruit trees are those natively found in cooler climates. These trees are often deciduous (dropping their leaves in the fall and winter and regrowing them in the spring). This is a survival tactic they use to go dormant and survive the colder weather.
Common temperate fruit trees include:
For best results, plant in layers such as this example below.
More Companion Plants for Fruit Trees
While the above 10 companion plants are some of the best for fruit trees, I wanted to provide you with even more companion plants!
Here are some bonus plants that go great with fruit trees.
Plants that Attract Pollinators
Many different animals can pollinate fruit trees. However, the most common pollinators are bees, butterflies, moths, flies, beetles, and wasps.
Basically, anything that visits flowers collects pollen on their bodies and fertilizes other flowers when that pollen rubs off.
So, to promote the best pollination for your fruit trees, and therefore the best yields and fruit sizes (even for self-pollinating fruit trees), check out these plants.
- Bee Balm
- Flowering Sage
- Black-eyed Susan
- Butterfly Bush
- Flowering Sage
Plants that Deter Pests
Like attracting pollinators, deterring pests is also extremely important in gardens.
There are some food forest growers, such as Pete Kanaris from the GreenDreamsTV YouTube channel, that use hedges of pest-deterring plants as a literal wall before their fruiting trees (shown in the video below).
Here are some of the best plants to deter pests:
- Lemon Balm
Plants that Fix Nitrogen
Fixing nitrogen is often the first step in prepping the soil for fruit trees. We’ve touched on quite a few of these already such as comfrey and cover crops, but here are some others you can plant:
- Black Locust
- Pigeon Peas
Plants to Avoid Planting Near Fruit Trees
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.
Fruit trees have 90% of their roots in the first 2 feet of soil (source). These roots are designed to search for nutrients and water and are more sensitive than other, deeper roots (used for anchoring and deeper water absorption).
Because of this, avoid using companion plants that have invasive or deep roots. Make sure to check the plant’s common root depth before planting it near your fruit trees.
Additionally, black walnut is thought to secrete a chemical in the soil called juglone. This is often believed to be damaging to other plants such as apple and peach trees. However, some plants have shown resistance to it, or can even neutralize it, including cherry, legumes, carrots, onion, melons, and squash.
When companion planting your fruit trees, aim to plant perennials over annuals. While annuals have many benefits, you’ll get more benefits for your labor if you lean on plants that can survive more than one year.
Additionally, fruit trees LOVE mulch. Seriously, they can’t get enough. Mulch dramatically retains water, prevents weeds, and deters pests. Provide your fruit trees with a mound of mulch around 1 foot high. This also is the best way to plant in heavy clay soils.
If you are working with heavy clay soils (let’s be honest, most of us are), avoid digging a hole to plant as the compact clay essentially creates a bucket in the ground—capturing water and drowning the plant’s roots. Instead, plant in mounds and build the soil up.
If you’d like to see more about how to plant fruit trees in clay soil, check out my other post: Can Fruit Trees Grow in Clay Soil (& How To Plant 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 good chance they’re repelling pests.
If you’d like to see how to best plant a fruit tree with companion plants, check out this amazing video by the Weedy Garden on YouTube. He’ll also give you a tour of his beautiful and thriving food forest.
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