I’ve been looking into planting elderberry in my backyard but wanted to place it near other plants that might benefit its growth. So, I put together some information and did some research to find elderberry companions and see if I already had some growing. Here’s what I found.
The best companion plants for elderberries are gooseberries, winterberries, raspberries, blueberries, walnut trees, and white pines. These companions attract pollinators, deter pests, provide windbreaks, and improve soil conditions. You can also plant elderberry in-between apple and walnut (which are common foes).
So, while these are a few great options for companion plants, what are some others, and what exactly do they do to help elderberry bushes? Let’s take a further look.
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. Gooseberry (Currants)
When used as an understory companion for elderberries, gooseberry bushes attract pollinators, shade soil, and provide mulch.
Gooseberries are a type of currant and have two main varieties: American and European. American gooseberries are native to the northeastern and northern US, including Canada, and are typically more productive than the European variety. However, the European variety commonly has larger and more flavorful fruits.
American gooseberries are similar in size and taste to grapes, and more grocery stores have recently started carrying them.
Gooseberries generally require little watering once established but need more watering if they’re exposed to the sun in hot and dry weather. For this reason, mulching and composting are vital to reduce evaporation and retain water in the soil. Additionally, providing some afternoon shade will go a long way.
In moisture-retentive soils established bushes need very little additional watering, but regular watering in hot, dry weather is a must for young plants and essential for container-grown gooseberries.Growveg.com
2. White Pine Tree
White pine trees grow best in USDA hardiness zones 3-7, which is actually the exact same for elderberries which makes them great companions from the start.
Elderberry plants typically require partial shade to full sun. White pines, due to their towering height, naturally provide elderberries with the perfect amount of shade, especially in environments where sunlight can be harsh and overwhelming.
Additionally, white pine trees offer significant wind protection to their smaller companions. Elderberry plants, which can be vulnerable to wind damage, significantly benefit from the sturdiness of the white pines, which act as natural windbreaks.
Elderberries also prefer slightly acidic soil so planting elderberries under acidic pine trees is not a bad idea at all.
The interaction between these two species extends below the soil as well. The broad root system of white pines contributes to the maintenance of soil structure, which is essential in preventing erosion and protecting elderberry roots.
Not to mention, these robust roots help regulate soil moisture levels, preventing waterlogged conditions that are unsuitable for elderberry growth.
3. Winterberry (Silverberry)
Elderberries and winterberries share a range of growth conditions that enable them to thrive together. Both these plants enjoy moist, well-drained soil and are tolerant of various sunlight conditions.
Winterberries are known to attract pollinators with their bright red color, which aids in elderberries fruiting.
There’s also a staggering aesthetic appeal to this pairing. Elderberries bloom in summer with clusters of white flowers that transform into dark, luscious berries. On the other hand, winterberries shine in the colder months, their bright red berries standing out against barren winter landscapes.
Winterberries grow best in USDA hardiness zones 3-9.
Yarrow is an excellent companion plant for elderberry. Yarrow’s feathery leaves and clusters of small, flat-topped flowers create a striking contrast in the garden, while its strong scent can help deter pests.
Additionally, yarrow attracts beneficial insects like ladybugs, lacewings, and parasitic wasps that can help control pests in your garden.
Plant yarrow near your elderberry bush, allowing enough room for both plants to grow and spread.
Phlox, a flowering plant with vibrant hues, holds several benefits as a companion for the elderberry. With its fragrant flowers, phlox is a pollinator magnet.
In addition to pollination, phlox’s dense growth serves another important function – it acts as a living mulch.
The spreading habit of phlox can help to suppress weeds that may otherwise compete with the elderberry for nutrients. At the same time, phlox’s foliage cover reduces moisture evaporation from the soil, ensuring that the elderberry’s water requirements are met.
Phlox can act as a sentinel plant. Because of its susceptibility to powdery mildew, an early infestation in phlox can serve as a warning sign to take preventive measures, thereby protecting elderberry and other plants in your garden.
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 elderberries (within 25-50 feet).
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.
Comfrey is one of the most popular companion herbs because not only can it be used to attract pollinators and other beneficial insects but it grows incredibly fast and tall—eventually falling over.
This biomass can then be chopped and dropped and applied as mulch for other plants. This reduces evaporation, regulates soil temperature, prevents erosion, and adds nutrients to the soil.
Comfrey promotes more nutrients in the soil, as its deep roots bring valuable nutrients closer to the top of the soil, ready for other plants to use. This makes it quite obvious to me that comfrey really is one of the best companion plants you can have in your garden.
More specifically, comfrey is known to provide nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, which happen to be the top 3 nutrients for plant growth!
Comfrey is a perennial and grows best in USDA hardiness zones 3-9. However, it will grow pretty much anywhere. It also prefers a soil pH of 6.0-7.0.
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 nutrients in your garden, grow comfrey!
Both plants blueberries and elderberries prefer acidic, well-draining soil and appreciate full sun to partial shade.
One of the most critical ways that blueberries benefit elderberries is through their attraction of beneficial insects.
Blueberries also play a significant role in pest management. Certain pests that might target elderberries are deterred by the presence of blueberry bushes, thus providing a natural form of pest control. For instance, blueberries can deter certain types of beetles that are known to attack elderberries.
Lastly, both plants have different heights, with elderberries typically growing taller than blueberries. This variation in height allows for better utilization of vertical space, ensuring that neither plant overshadows the other.
9. Raspberry and Blackberry
The main thing to remember is to not plant raspberry and blackberries next to one another, as they will compete for nutrients.
Primarily, raspberries and blackberries are excellent at attracting pollinators resulting in higher yields of elderberries.
The thick growth of raspberry and blackberry bushes acts as a natural barrier against wind and extreme weather conditions.
Raspberries and blackberries also offer a level of pest management for elderberries. Certain pests that are attracted to elderberries may be deterred by the presence of raspberry and blackberry plants. The specific aroma of raspberry leaves can confuse or deter pests.
Walnut trees’ extensive root systems help improve the overall soil structure.
Walnut trees also cast a large shade with their broad canopy which provides a beneficial microclimate for elderberries because they are known to do well in partial shade. The walnut tree is also another tree that can serve as a windbreak for elderberry.
Interestingly, walnut trees produce a substance known as juglone, which inhibits the growth of certain other plants, like apple trees. However, elderberries are among the plants that are tolerant of juglone, so they can grow near walnut trees when other plants might struggle.
11. Cover Crops
Many legumes (along with some grasses such as annual ryegrass) are called cover crops as they are fantastic pioneer plants to restore depleted soils ahead of elderberry bushes.
Some examples of cover crops are:
- Other beans
- Annual Ryegrass
- Cereal Grasses
Here are the primary benefits of cover crops:
- Fixes nitrogen in the soil
- Slows erosion
- Retains water
- Preventing weeds
- Controls pests and diseases
Since fruiting plants are heavy feeders of nitrogen (their primary nutrient), nitrogen fixers like cover crops are incredibly useful.
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
To maximize the nitrogen and nutrients for other plants, cover crops should be mowed or chopped and dropped as mulch before they seed.
You can even grow some cover crops such as clover in-between your elderberry bushes. Livestock can then be run through the alleys to eat the cover crops and contribute fertilizer as manure.
If you’d like to learn more about cover crops, check out this resource by Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE).
Nasturtiums are edible, beautiful, fast-growing, and are great companions for elderberries. Here are their benefits:
- They attract aphids away from the tree.
- The flowers on nasturtiums attract pollinators (usually hummingbirds), which increases the chance these pollinators will also pay a visit to your plum tree’s flowers while they’re in full bloom (ideally within 50 feet)
Nasturtiums come in a wide range of colors, and their sand-dollar-shaped leaves are attention-grabbing. They also have no problem growing in poor soil, as long as it’s well-draining.
You can interplant nasturtiums with any plant on this list for added color and interest next to your elderberry bush.
13. Alliums (Onion, Garlic, and Chives)
Allium is a genus that includes onions, garlic, chives, shallots, and leeks. These plants are delicious as well as medicinal, and they create lovely globe-shaped blossoms in the garden.
Plants in the allium group emit strong odors, repelling aphids and mites that can damage persimmons in high populations.
Their thick bulbous roots can also be a barrier to grasses and other weeds when grown close together. Plant them in a ring around the dripline of your persimmon trees to keep the weeds from closing in.
Other companions for alliums:
Alliums can grow in zones 3-9, depending on the variety, and need full sun and good drainage.
Strawberries provide elderberry bushes with benefits such as:
- Increased pollination from their flowers
- A perennial ground cover. As a result, more of the tree can be successfully fertilized and the plant’s soil has greatly reduced evaporation from the living ground cover
Also, consider planting strawberry plants with borage under elderberry.
For example, a recent study showed that borage interplanted with strawberries saw an increase in strawberry production, with 35% more fruits and 32% more yield by weight (source).
Other companions for strawberry plants include asparagus, sage, and thyme. Avoid planting strawberries with mint, cabbage, and melons.
Borage is technically a wildflower, but I thought it deserved a special mention. First, it’s incredibly useful for elderberry bushes as it attracts pollinators, makes a great mulch, and prevents many pests and diseases (source).
Also known as starflower, borage is an annual herb native to the Mediterranean. As a result, this plant is fairly drought tolerant, especially once mature. After planting, borage is easy to grow as it self-seeds and its flowers are also edible.
As mentioned earlier, one study showed that planting borage with strawberries significantly increased the yield and market quality of the berries, with 35% more fruits and 32% more weight. And similar benefits can be found when interplanted with blueberry plants.
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.